The Hidden Oracle chapter 17

Bowling balls of death

Rolling toward my enemies

I’ll trade you problems

 

AT LEAST WE DID NOT LAND IN PERU.

 

My feet hit stone, jarring my ankles. We stumbled against a wall, but Meg provided me with a convenient cushion.

 

We found ourselves in a dark tunnel braced with oaken beams. The hole we’d fallen through was gone, replaced by an earthen ceiling. I saw no sign of the other teams, but from somewhere above I could vaguely hear Harley chanting, “Go! Go! Go!”

 

“When I get my powers back,” I said, “I will turn Harley into a constellation called the Ankle Biter. At least constellations are silent.”

Meg pointed down the corridor. “Look.”

As my eyes adjusted, I realized the tunnel’s dim light emanated from a glowing piece of fruit about thirty meters away.

“A golden apple,” I said.

Meg lurched forward, pulling me with her. “Wait!” I said. “There might be traps!”

 

As if to illustrate my point, Connor and Paolo emerged from the darkness at the other end of the corridor. Paolo scooped up the golden apple and shouted, “BRASIL!”

Connor grinned at us. “Too slow, suckers!”

The ceiling opened above them, showering them with iron orbs the size of cantaloupes. Connor yelped, “Run!”

 

He and Paolo executed an awkward one-eighty and hobbled away, hotly pursued by a rolling herd of cannonballs with sparking fuses.

 

The sounds quickly faded. Without the glowing apple, we were left in total darkness. “Great.” Meg’s voice echoed. “Now what?”

“I suggest we go the other direction.”

That was easier said than done. Being blind seemed to bother Meg more than it did me. Thanks to my mortal body, I already felt crippled and deprived of my senses. Besides, I often relied on more than sight. Music required keen hearing. Archery required a sensitive touch and the ability to feel the direction of the wind. (Okay, sight was also helpful, but you get the idea.)

 

We shuffled ahead, our arms extended in front of us. I listened for suspicious clicks, snaps, or creaks

 

that might indicate an incoming flock of explosions, but I suspected that if I did hear any warning signs, it would be too late.

 

Eventually Meg and I learned to walk with our bound legs in synchronicity. It wasn’t easy. I had a flawless sense of rhythm. Meg was always a quarter beat slow or fast, which kept us veering left or right and running into walls.

 

We lumbered along for what might have been minutes or days. In the Labyrinth, time was deceptive. I remembered what Austin had told me about the Labyrinth feeling different since the death of its

 

creator. I was beginning to understand what he meant. The air seemed fresher, as if the maze hadn’t been chewing up quite so many bodies. The walls didn’t radiate the same malignant heat. As far as I could tell, they weren’t oozing blood or slime, either, which was a definite improvement. In the old days, you couldn’t take a step inside Daedalus’s Labyrinth without sensing its all-consuming desire: I will destroy your mind and your body. Now the atmosphere was sleepier, the message not quite as virulent: Hey, if you die in here, that’s cool.

 

“I never liked Daedalus,” I muttered. “That old rascal didn’t know when to stop. He always had to have the latest tech, the most recent updates. I told him not to make his maze self-aware. ‘A.I. will destroy us, man,’ I said. But noooo. He had to give the Labyrinth a malevolent consciousness.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Meg said. “But maybe you shouldn’t bad-mouth the maze while we’re inside it.”

 

Once, I stopped when I heard the sound of Austin’s saxophone. It was faint, echoing through so many corridors I couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from. Then it was gone. I hoped he and Kayla had found their three apples and escaped safely.

 

Finally, Meg and I reached a Y in the corridor. I could tell this from the flow of the air and the temperature differential against my face.

 

“Why’d we stop?” Meg asked. “Shh.” I listened intently.

 

From the right-hand corridor came a faint whining sound like a table saw. The left-hand corridor was quiet, but it exuded a faint odor that was unpleasantly familiar…not sulfur, exactly, but a vaporous mix of minerals from deep in the earth.

“I don’t hear anything,” Meg complained.

 

“A sawing noise to the right,” I told her. “To the left, a bad smell.” “I choose the bad smell.”

“Of course you do.”

Meg blew me one of her trademark raspberries, then hobbled to the left, pulling me along with her. The bronze bands around my leg began to chafe. I could feel Meg’s pulse through her femoral artery, messing up my rhythm. Whenever I get nervous (which doesn’t happen often), I like to hum a song to calm myself—usually Ravel’s Boléro or the ancient Greek “Song of Seikilos.” But with Meg’s pulse throwing

me off, the only tune I could conjure was the “Chicken Dance.” That was not soothing.

 

We edged forward. The smell of volcanic fumes intensified. My pulse lost its perfect rhythm. My heart knocked against my chest with every cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck of the “Chicken Dance.” I feared I knew where we were. I told myself it wasn’t possible. We couldn’t have walked halfway around the world. But this was the Labyrinth. Down here, distance was meaningless. The maze knew how to exploit its victims’ weaknesses. Worse: it had a vicious sense of humor.

 

“I see light!” Meg said.

 

She was right. The absolute darkness had changed to murky gray. Up ahead, the tunnel ended, joining with a narrow, lengthwise cavern like a volcanic vent. It looked as if a colossal claw had slashed across the corridor and left a wound in the earth. I had seen creatures with claws that big down in Tartarus. I did not fancy seeing them again.

 

“We should turn around,” I said.

 

“That’s stupid,” Meg said. “Don’t you see the golden glow? There’s an apple in there.”

All I saw were swirling plumes of ash and gas. “The glow could be lava,” I said. “Or radiation. Or eyes. Glowing eyes are never good.”

 

“It’s an apple,” Meg insisted. “I can smell apple.” “Oh, now you develop keen senses?”

 

Meg forged onward, giving me little choice but to go with. For a small girl, she was quite good at throwing her weight around. At the end of the tunnel, we found ourselves on a narrow ledge. The cliff wall opposite was only ten feet away, but the crevasse seemed to plunge downward forever. Perhaps a hundred feet above us, the jagged vent opened into a bigger chamber.

A painfully large ice cube seemed to be working its way down my throat. I had never seen this place from below, but I knew exactly where we were. We stood at the omphalus—the navel of the ancient world.

“You’re shaking,” Meg said.

 

I tried to cover her mouth with my hand, but she promptly bit it. “Don’t touch me,” she snarled.

 

Please be quiet.” “Why?”

 

“Because right above us—” My voice cracked. “Delphi. The chamber of the Oracle.” Meg’s nose quivered like a rabbit’s. “That’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not,” I whispered. “And if this is Delphi, that means…”

From overhead came a hiss so loud, it sounded as if the entire ocean had hit a frying pan and evaporated into a massive steam cloud. The ledge shook. Pebbles rained down. Above, a monstrous body slid across the crevasse, completely covering the opening. The smell of molting snakeskin seared my nostrils.

“Python.” My voice was now an octave higher than Meg’s. “He is here.”

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