The Hidden Oracle chapter 18

The Beast is calling

Tell him I’m not here. Let’s hide

Where? In garbage. Natch

 

HAD I EVER BEEN SO TERRIFIED?

 

Perhaps when Typhon raged across the earth, scattering the gods before him. Perhaps when Gaea unleashed her giants to tear down Olympus. Or perhaps when I accidentally saw Ares naked in the gymnasium. That had been enough to turn my hair white for a century.

But I had been a god all of those times. Now I was a weak, tiny mortal cowering in the darkness. I could only pray my old enemy would not sense my presence. For once in my long glorious life, I wanted to be invisible.

Oh, why had the Labyrinth brought me here?

 

As soon as I thought this, I chided myself: Of course it would bring me where I least wanted to be. Austin had been wrong about the maze. It was still evil, designed to kill. It was just a little subtler about its homicides now.

 

Meg seemed oblivious to our danger. Even with an immortal monster a hundred feet above us, she had the nerve to stay on task. She elbowed me and pointed to a tiny ledge on the opposite wall, where a golden apple glowed cheerfully.

 

Had Harley placed it there? I couldn’t imagine. More likely the boy had simply rolled golden apples down various corridors, trusting that they would find the most dangerous spots to roost. I was really starting to dislike that boy.

Meg whispered, “Easy jump.”

 

I gave her a look that under different circumstances would’ve incinerated her. “Too dangerous.” “Apple,” she hissed.

 

“Monster!” I hissed back. “One.”

“No!”

“Two.”

“No!”

“Three.” She jumped.

Which meant that I also jumped. We made the ledge, though our heels sent a spray of rubble into the chasm. Only my natural coordination and grace saved us from toppling backward to our deaths. Meg snatched up the apple.

 

Above us, the monster rumbled, “Who approaches?”

 

His voice…Gods above, I remembered that voice—deep and gruff, as if he breathed xenon rather than air. For all I knew, he did. Python could certainly produce his share of unhealthy gasses.

The monster shifted his weight. More gravel spilled into the crevasse.

 

I stood absolutely still, pressed against the cold face of the rock. My eardrums pulsed with every beat of my heart. I wished I could stop Meg from breathing. I wished I could stop the rhinestones on her eyeglasses from glittering.

 

Python had heard us. I prayed to all the gods that the monster would decide the noise was nothing. All he had to do was breathe down into the crevasse and he would kill us. There was no escaping his poisonous belch—not from this distance, not for a mortal.

 

Then, from the cavern above, came another voice, smaller and much closer to human. “Hello, my reptilian friend.”

 

I nearly wept with relief. I had no idea who this newcomer was, or why he had been so foolish as to announce his presence to Python, but I always appreciated it when humans sacrificed themselves to save me. Common courtesy was not dead after all!

 

Python’s harsh laugh shook my teeth. “Well, I was wondering if you would make the trip, Monsieur Beast.”

 

“Don’t call me that,” the man snapped. “And the commute was quite easy now that the Labyrinth is back in service.”

“I’m so pleased.” Python’s tone was dry as basalt.

I couldn’t tell much about the man’s voice, muffled as it was by several tons of reptile flesh, but he sounded calmer and more in control than I would have been talking to Python. I had heard the term Beast used to describe someone before, but as usual, my mortal brainpower failed me.

If only I’d been able to retain just the important information! Instead, I could tell you what I had for dessert the first time I dined with King Minos. (Spice cake.) I could tell you what color chitons the sons of Niobe were wearing when I slew them. (A very unflattering shade of orange.) But I couldn’t remember something as basic as whether this Beast was a wrestler, a movie star, or a politician. Possibly all three?

 

Next to me, in the glow of the apple, Meg seemed to have turned to bronze. Her eyes were wide with fear. A little late for that, but at least she was quiet. If I didn’t know better, I might have thought the man’s voice terrified her more than the monster’s.

 

“So, Python,” the man continued, “any prophetic words to share with me?” “In time…my lord.”

 

The last words were spoken with amusement, but I’m not sure anyone else would’ve recognized it. Aside from myself, few had been on the receiving end of Python’s sarcasm and lived to tell the tale.

 

“I need more than your assurances,” the man said. “Before we proceed, we must have all the Oracles under our control.”

 

All the Oracles. Those words almost sent me off the cliff, but somehow I retained my balance. “In time,” Python said, “as we agreed. We have come this far by biding our time, yes? You did not

 

reveal your hand when the Titans stormed New York. I did not march to war with Gaea’s giants. We both realized the time for victory was not yet right. You must remain patient for a while longer.”

“Don’t lecture me, snake. While you slumbered, I built an empire. I have spent centuries—” “Yes, yes.” The monster exhaled, causing a tremor along the cliff face. “And if you ever want your

 

empire to come out of the shadows, you need to deliver on your side of the bargain first. When will you destroy Apollo?”

 

I stifled a yelp. I should not have been surprised that they were talking about me. For millennia, I had assumed that everyone talked about me all the time. I was so interesting they simply couldn’t help it. But this business about destroying me—I didn’t like that.

 

Meg looked more terrified than I’d ever seen her. I wanted to think she was worried for my sake, but I had a feeling she was equally concerned about herself. Again, those mixed-up demigod priorities.

 

The man stepped closer to the chasm. His voice became clearer and louder. “Don’t worry about Apollo. He is exactly where I need him to be. He will serve our purpose, and once he is no longer useful…”

 

He did not bother finishing the statement. I was afraid it did not end with we will give him a nice present and send him on his way. With a chill, I recognized the voice from my dream. It was the nasal sneer of the man in the purple suit. I also had a feeling I’d heard him sing before, years and years ago, but that didn’t make sense….Why would I suffer through a concert given by an ugly purple-suited man who called himself the Beast? I was not even a fan of death metal polka!

Python shifted his bulk, showering us with more rubble. “And how exactly will you convince him to serve our purpose?”

 

The Beast chuckled. “I have well-placed help within the camp who will steer Apollo toward us. Also, I have upped the stakes. Apollo will have no choice. He and the girl will open the gates.”

 

A whiff of Python vapor floated across my nose—enough to make me dizzy, hopefully not enough to kill me.

 

“I trust you are right,” said the monster. “Your judgment in the past has been…questionable. I wonder if you have chosen the right tools for this job. Have you learned from your past mistakes?”

The man snarled so deeply I could almost believe he was turning into a beast. I’d seen that happen enough times. Next to me, Meg whimpered.

 

“Listen here, you overgrown reptile,” the man said, “my only mistake was not burning my enemies fast enough, often enough. I assure you, I am stronger than ever. My organization is everywhere. My colleagues stand ready. When we control all four Oracles, we will control fate itself!”

“And what a glorious day that will be.” Python’s voice was jagged with contempt. “But beforehand, you must destroy the fifth Oracle, yes? That is the only one I cannot control. You must set flame to the grove of—”

“Dodona,” I said.

 

The word leaped unbidden from my mouth and echoed through the chasm. Of all the stupid times to retrieve a piece of information, of all the stupid times to say it aloud…oh, the body of Lester Papadopoulos was a terrible place to live.

 

Above us, the conversation stopped. Meg hissed at me, “You idiot.”

The Beast said, “What was that sound?”

Rather than answer, Oh, that’s just us, we did something even more foolish. One of us, Meg or me— personally, I blame her—must have slipped on a pebble. We toppled off the ledge and fell into the sulfurous clouds below.

 

 

SQUISH.

 

The Labyrinth most definitely had a sense of humor. Instead of allowing us to smash into a rock floor and die, the maze dropped us into a mound of wet, full garbage bags.

 

If you’re keeping score, that was the second time since becoming mortal that I had crash-landed in garbage, which was two times more than any god should endure.

 

We tumbled down the pile in a frenzy of three-legged flailing. We landed at the bottom, covered with muck, but, miraculously, still alive.

Meg sat up, glazed in a layer of coffee grounds.

I pulled a banana peel off my head and flicked it aside. “Is there some reason you keep landing us in

 

trash heaps?”

 

“Me? You’re the one who lost his balance!” Meg wiped her face without much luck. In her other hand, she clutched the golden apple with trembling fingers.

 

“Are you all right?” I asked. “Fine,” she snapped.

 

Clearly that was not true. She looked as if she’d just gone through Hades’s haunted house. (Pro tip: DO NOT.) Her face was pallid. She had bit her lip so hard, her teeth were pink with blood. I also detected the faint smell of urine, meaning one of us had gotten scared enough to lose bladder control, and I was seventy-five percent sure it wasn’t me.

 

“That man upstairs,” I said. “You recognized his voice?” “Shut up. That’s an order!”

 

I attempted to reply. To my consternation, I found that I couldn’t. My voice had heeded Meg’s command all on its own, which did not bode well. I decided to file away my questions about the Beast for later.

 

I scanned our surroundings. Garbage chutes lined the walls on all four sides of the dismal little basement. As I watched, another bag of refuse slid down the right-hand chute and hit the pile. The smell was so strong, it could have burned paint off the walls, if the gray cinder blocks had been painted. Still, it was better than smelling the fumes of Python. The only visible exit was a metal door marked with a biohazard sign.

 

“Where are we?” Meg asked. I glared at her, waiting.

“You can talk now,” she added.

“This is going to shock you,” I said, “but it appears we are in a garbage room.” “But where?”

 

“Could be anywhere. The Labyrinth intersects with subterranean places all around the world.” “Like Delphi.” Meg glowered at me as if our little Greek excursion had been my fault and not…well,

only indirectly my fault.

 

“That was unexpected,” I agreed. “We need to speak with Chiron.” “What is Dodona?”

 

“I—I’ll explain it all later.” I didn’t want Meg to shut me up again. I also didn’t want to talk about Dodona while trapped in the Labyrinth. My skin was crawling, and I didn’t think it was just because I was covered in sticky soda syrup. “First, we need to get out of here.”

 

Meg glanced behind me. “Well, it wasn’t a total waste.” She reached into the garbage and pulled out a second piece of glowing fruit. “Only one more apple to go.”

 

“Perfect.” The last thing I cared about was finishing Harley’s ridiculous race, but at least it would get Meg moving. “Now, why don’t we see what fabulous biohazards await us behind that door?”

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