The Hidden Oracle chapter 32

It takes a Village

People to protect your mind

“Y.M.C.A.” Yeah

 

OH, THIS PART IS DIFFICULT TO TELL.

 

I am a natural storyteller. I have an infallible instinct for drama. I want to relate what should have happened: how I leaped forward shouting, “Nooooo!” and spun like an acrobat, knocking aside the lit match, then twisted in a series of blazing-fast Shaolin moves, cracking Nero’s head and taking out his bodyguards before they could recover.

 

Ah, yes. That would have been perfect. Alas, the truth constrains me.

Curse you, truth!

 

In fact, I spluttered something like, “Nuh-uh, dun-doot!” I may have waved my Brazilian handkerchief with the hope that its magic would destroy my enemies.

 

The real hero was Peaches. The karpos must have sensed Meg’s true feelings, or perhaps he just didn’t like the idea of burning forests. He hurtled through the air, screaming his war cry (you guessed it), “Peaches!” He landed on Nero’s arm, chomped the lit match from the emperor’s hand, then landed a few feet away, wiping his tongue and crying, “Hat! Hat!” (Which I assumed meant hot in the dialect of deciduous fruit.)

 

The scene might have been funny except that the Germani were now back on their feet, five demigods and a geyser spirit were still tied to highly flammable posts, and Nero still had a box of matches.

 

The emperor stared at his empty hand. “Meg…?” His voice was as cold as an icicle. “What is the meaning of this?”

“P-Peaches, come here!” Meg’s voice had turned brittle with fear.

The karpos bounded to her side. He hissed at me, Nero, and the Germani.

 

Meg took a shaky breath, clearly gathering her nerve. “Nero…Peaches is right. You—you can’t burn these people alive.”

 

Nero sighed. He looked at his bodyguards for moral support, but the Germani still appeared woozy. They were hitting the sides of their heads as if trying to clear water from their ears.

“Meg,” said the emperor, “I am trying so hard to keep the Beast at bay. Why won’t you help me? I know you are a good girl. I wouldn’t have allowed you to roam around Manhattan so much on your own, playing the street waif, if I didn’t know you could take care of yourself. But softness toward your enemies is not a virtue. You are my stepdaughter. Any of these demigods would kill you without hesitation given

 

the chance.”

 

“Meg, that’s not true!” I said. “You’ve seen what Camp Half-Blood is like.”

She studied me uneasily. “Even…even if it was true…” She turned to Nero. “You told me never to lower myself to my enemies’ level.”

 

“No, indeed.” Nero’s tone had frayed like a weathered rope. “We are better. We are stronger. We will build a glorious new world. But these nonsense-spewing trees stand in our way, Meg. Like any invasive weeds, they must be burned. And the only way to do that is with a true conflagration—flames stoked by blood. Let us do this together, and not involve the Beast, shall we?”

 

Finally, in my mind, something clicked. I remembered how my father used to punish me centuries ago, when I was a young god learning the ways of Olympus. Zeus used to say, Don’t get on the wrong side of my lightning bolts, boy.

 

As if the lightning bolt had a mind of its own—as if Zeus had nothing to do with the punishments he meted out upon me.

 

Don’t blame me, his tone implied. It’s the lightning bolt that seared every molecule in your body.

 

Many years later, when I killed the Cyclopes who made Zeus’s lightning, it was no rash decision. I’d always hated those lightning bolts. It was easier than hating my father.

 

Nero took the same tone when he referred to himself as the Beast. He spoke of his anger and cruelty as if they were forces outside his control. If he flew into a rage…well then, he would hold Meg responsible.

 

The realization sickened me. Meg had been trained to regard her kindly stepfather Nero and the terrifying Beast as two separate people. I understood now why she preferred to spend her time in the alleys of New York. I understood why she had such quick mood changes, going from cartwheels to full shutdown in a matter of seconds. She never knew what might unleash the Beast.

 

She fixed her eyes on me. Her lips quivered. I could tell she wanted a way out—some eloquent argument that would mollify her stepfather and allow her to follow her conscience. But I was no longer a silver-tongued god. I could not outtalk an orator like Nero. And I would not play the Beast’s blame game.

 

Instead, I took a page from Meg’s book, which was always short and to the point. “He’s evil,” I said. “You’re good. You must make your own choice.”

I could tell that this was not the news Meg wanted. Her mouth tightened. She drew back her shoulder blades as if preparing for a measles shot—something painful but necessary. She placed her hand on the karpos’s curly scalp. “Peaches,” she said in a small but firm voice, “get the matchbox.”

 

The karpos sprang into action. Nero barely had time to blink before Peaches ripped the box from his hand and jumped back to Meg’s side.

 

The Germani readied their spears. Nero raised his hand for restraint. He gave Meg a look that might have been heartbreak—if he had possessed a heart.

 

“I see you weren’t ready for this assignment, my dear,” he said. “It’s my fault. Vince, Gary, detain Meg but don’t hurt her. When we get home…” He shrugged, his expression full of regret. “As for Apollo and the little fruit demon, they will have to burn.”

 

“No,” Meg croaked. Then, at full volume, she shouted, “NO!” And the Grove of Dodona shouted with

 

her.

 

The blast was so powerful, it knocked Nero and his guards off their feet. Peaches screamed and beat his head against the dirt.

 

This time, however, I was more prepared. As the trees’ ear-splitting chorus reached its crescendo, I anchored my mind with the catchiest tune I could imagine. I hummed “Y.M.C.A.,” which I used to perform with the Village People in my construction worker costume until the Indian chief and I got in a fight over —Never mind. That’s not important.

 

“Meg!” I pulled the brass wind chimes from my pocket and tossed them to her. “Put these on the center tree! Y.M.C.A. Focus the grove’s energy! Y.M.C.A.

 

I wasn’t sure she could hear me. She raised the chimes and watched as they swayed and clanked, turning the noise from the trees into snatches of coherent speech: Happiness approaches. The fall of the sun; the final verse. Would you like to hear our specials today?

Meg’s face went slack with surprise. She turned toward the grove and sprinted through the gateway. Peaches crawled after her, shaking his head.

 

I wanted to follow, but I couldn’t leave Nero and his guards alone with six hostages. Still humming “Y.M.C.A.,” I marched toward them.

 

The trees screamed louder than ever, but Nero rose to his knees. He pulled something from his coat pocket—a vial of liquid—and splashed it on the ground in front of him. I doubted that was a good thing, but I had more immediate concerns. Vince and Gary were getting up. Vince thrust his spear in my direction.

 

I was angry enough to be reckless. I grabbed the point of his weapon and yanked the spear up, smacking Vince under his chin. He fell, stunned, and I grabbed fistfuls of his hide armor.

 

He was easily twice my size. I didn’t care. I lifted him off his feet. My arms sizzled with power. I felt invincibly strong—the way a god should feel. I had no idea why my strength had returned, but I decided this was not the moment to question my good luck. I spun Vince like a discus, tossing him skyward with such force that he punched a Germanus-shaped hole in the tree canopy and sailed out of sight.

 

Kudos to the Imperial Guard for having stupid amounts of courage. Despite my show of force, Gary charged me. With one hand, I snapped his spear. With the other, I punched a fist straight through his shield and hit his chest with enough might to fell a rhinoceros.

He collapsed in a heap.

 

I faced Nero. I could already feel my strength ebbing. My muscles were returning to their pathetic mortal flabbiness. I just hoped I’d have enough time to rip off Nero’s head and stuff it down his mauve suit.

 

The emperor snarled. “You’re a fool, Apollo. You always focus on the wrong thing.” He glanced at his Rolex. “My wrecking crew will be here any minute. Once Camp Half-Blood is destroyed, I’ll make it my new front lawn! Meanwhile, you’ll be here…putting out fires.”

 

From his vest pocket, he produced a silver cigarette lighter. Typical of Nero to keep several forms of fire-making close at hand. I looked at the glistening streaks of oil he had splashed on the ground….Greek fire, of course.

“Don’t,” I said.

 

Nero grinned. “Good-bye, Apollo. Only eleven more Olympians to go.” He dropped the lighter.

 

 

I did not have the pleasure of tearing Nero’s head off.

 

Could I have stopped him from fleeing? Possibly. But the flames were roaring between us, burning grass and bones, tree roots, and the earth itself. The blaze was too strong to stamp out, if Greek fire even could be stamped out, and it was rolling hungrily toward the six bound hostages.

I let Nero go. Somehow he hauled Gary to his feet and lugged the punch-drunk Germanus toward the ants’ nest. Meanwhile, I ran to the stakes.

 

The closest was Austin’s. I wrapped my arms around the base and pulled, completely disregarding proper heavy-lifting techniques. My muscles strained. My eyes swam with the effort. I managed to raise the stake enough to topple it backward. Austin stirred and groaned.

 

I dragged him, cocoon and all, to the other side of the clearing, as far from the fire as possible. I would have brought him into the Grove of Dodona, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be doing him any favors by putting him in a dead-end clearing full of insane voices, in the direct path of approaching flames.

 

I ran back to the stakes. I repeated the process—uprooting Kayla, then Paulie the geyser god, then the others. By the time I pulled Miranda Gardiner to safety, the fire was a raging red tidal wave, only inches from the gates of the grove.

My divine strength was gone. Meg and Peaches were nowhere to be seen. I had bought a few minutes for the hostages, but the fire would eventually consume us all. I fell to my knees and sobbed.

 

“Help.” I scanned the dark trees, tangled and foreboding. I did not expect any help. I was not even used to asking for help. I was Apollo. Mortals called to me! (Yes, occasionally I might have ordered demigods to run trivial errands for me, like starting wars or retrieving magic items from monsters’ lairs, but those requests didn’t count.)

 

“I can’t do this alone.” I imagined Daphne’s face floating beneath the trunk of one tree, then another. Soon the woods would burn. I couldn’t save them any more than I could save Meg or the lost demigods or myself. “I’m so sorry. Please…forgive me.”

 

My head must have been spinning from smoke inhalation. I began to hallucinate. The shimmering forms of dryads emerged from their trees—a legion of Daphnes in green gossamer dresses. Their expressions were melancholy, as if they knew they were going to their deaths, yet they circled the fire. They raised their arms, and the earth erupted at their feet. A torrent of mud churned over the flames. The dryads drew the fire’s heat into their bodies. Their skin charred black. Their faces hardened and cracked.

 

As soon as the last flames were snuffed out, the dryads crumbled to ash. I wished I could crumble with them. I wanted to cry, but the fire had seared all the moisture from my tear ducts. I had not asked for so many sacrifices. I had not expected it! I felt hollow, guilty, and ashamed.

 

Then it occurred to me how many times I had asked for sacrifices, how many heroes I had sent to their deaths. Had they been any less noble and courageous than these dryads? Yet I had felt no remorse when I sent them off on deadly tasks. I had used them and discarded them, laid waste to their lives to build my own glory. I was no less of a monster than Nero.

 

Wind blew through the clearing—an unseasonably warm gust that swirled up the ashes and carried them through the forest canopy into the sky. Only after the breeze calmed did I realize it must have been the West Wind, my old rival, offering me consolation. He had swept up the remains and taken them off to their next beautiful reincarnation. After all these centuries, Zephyros had accepted my apology.

 

I discovered I had some tears left after all. Behind me, someone groaned. “Where am I?” Austin was awake.

I crawled to his side, now weeping with relief, and kissed his face. “My beautiful son!”

 

He blinked at me in confusion. His cornrows were sprinkled with ashes like frost on a field. I suppose it took a moment for him to process why he was being fawned over by a grungy, half-deranged boy with acne.

 

“Ah, right…Apollo.” He tried to move. “What the—? Why am I wrapped in smelly bandages? Could you free me, maybe?”

 

I laughed hysterically, which I doubt helped Austin’s peace of mind. I clawed at his bindings but made no progress. Then I remembered Gary’s snapped spear. I retrieved the point and spent several minutes sawing Austin free.

 

Once pulled from the stake, he stumbled around, trying to shake the circulation back into his limbs. He took in the scene—the smoldering forest, the other prisoners. The Grove of Dodona had stopped its wild chorus of screaming. (When had that happened?) A radiant amber light now glowed from the gateway.

“What’s going on?” Austin asked. “Also, where is my saxophone?”

 

Sensible questions. I wished I had sensible answers. All I knew was that Meg McCaffrey was still wandering in the grove, and I did not like the fact that the trees had gone silent.

 

I stared at my weak mortal arms. I wondered why I’d experienced a sudden surge of divine strength

 

when facing the Germani. Had my emotions triggered it? Was it the first sign of my godly vigor returning for good? Or perhaps Zeus was just messing with me again—giving me a taste of my old power before yanking it away once more. Remember this, kid? WELL, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!

 

I wished I could summon that strength again, but I would have to make do. I handed Austin the broken spear. “Free the others. I’ll be back.”

 

Austin stared at me incredulously. “You’re going in there? Is it safe?” “I doubt it,” I said.

Then I ran toward the Oracle.

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