The Hidden Oracle chapter 29

Nightmares of torches

And a man in purple clothes

But that’s not the worst

 

I HAD NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY to see a killing field.

 

We emerged into a glade littered with bones. Most were from forest animals. A few appeared human. I guessed we had found the myrmekes’ dumping site, and they apparently didn’t get regular garbage pickup.

 

The clearing was hemmed with trees so thick and tangled that traveling through them would’ve been impossible. Over our heads, the branches wove together in a leafy dome that let in sunlight but not much else. Anyone flying above the forest would never have realized this open space existed under the canopy.

 

At the far end of the glade stood a row of objects like football tackle dummies—six white cocoons staked on tall wooden poles, flanking a pair of enormous oaks. Each tree was at least eighty feet tall. They had grown so close together that their massive trunks appeared to have fused. I had the distinct impression I was looking at a set of living doors.

“It’s a gateway,” I said. “To the Grove of Dodona.”

 

Meg’s blades retracted, once again becoming gold rings on her middle fingers. “Aren’t we in the grove?”

 

“No…” I stared across the clearing at the white cocoon Popsicles. They were too far away to make out clearly, but something about them seemed familiar in an evil, unwelcome sort of way. I wanted to get closer. I also wanted to keep my distance.

 

“I think this is more of an antechamber,” I said. “The grove itself is behind those trees.” Meg gazed warily across the field. “I don’t hear any voices.”

 

It was true. The forest was absolutely quiet. The trees seemed to be holding their breath. “The grove knows we are here,” I guessed. “It’s waiting to see what we’ll do.”

 

“We’d better do something, then.” Meg didn’t sound any more excited than I was, but she marched forward, bones crunching under her feet.

 

I wished I had more than a bow, an empty quiver, and a hoarse voice to defend myself with, but I followed, trying not to trip over rib cages and deer antlers. About halfway across the glade, Meg let out a sharp exhale.

She was staring at the posts on either side of the tree gates.

 

At first I couldn’t process what I was seeing. Each stake was about the height of a crucifix—the kind Romans used to set up along the roadside to advertise the fates of criminals. (Personally, I find modern

 

billboards much more tasteful.) The upper half of each post was wrapped in thick lumpy wads of white cloth, and sticking from the top of each cocoon was something that looked like a human head.

 

My stomach somersaulted. They were human heads. Arrayed in front of us were the missing demigods, all tightly bound. I watched, petrified, until I discerned the slightest expansions and contractions in the wrappings around their chests. They were still breathing. Unconscious, not dead. Thank the gods.

 

On the left were three teenagers I didn’t know, though I assumed they must be Cecil, Ellis, and Miranda. On the right side was an emaciated man with gray skin and white hair—no doubt the geyser god Paulie. Next to him hung my children…Austin and Kayla.

 

I shook so violently, the bones around my feet clattered. I recognized the smell coming from the prisoners’ wrappings—sulfur, oil, powdered lime, and liquid Greek fire, the most dangerous substance ever created. Rage and disgust fought in my throat, vying for the right to make me throw up.

 

“Oh, monstrous,” I said. “We need to free them immediately.” “Wh-what’s wrong with them?” Meg stammered.

 

I dared not put it into words. I had seen this form of execution once before, at the hands of the Beast, and I never wished to see it again.

 

I ran to Austin’s stake. With all my strength I tried to push it over, but it wouldn’t budge. The base was sunk too deep in the earth. I tore at the cloth bindings but only managed to coat my hands in sulfurous resin. The wadding was stickier and harder than myrmekes’ goo.

 

“Meg, your swords!” I wasn’t sure they would do any good either, but I could think of nothing else to

 

try.

Then from above us came a familiar snarl.

 

The branches rustled. Peaches the karpos dropped from the canopy, landing with a somersault at Meg’s feet. He looked like he’d been through quite an ordeal to get here. His arms were sliced up and dripping peach nectar. His legs were dotted with bruises. His diaper sagged dangerously.

 

“Thank the gods!” I said. That was not my usual reaction when I saw the grain spirit, but his teeth and claws might be just the things to free the demigods. “Meg, hurry! Order your friend to—”

“Apollo.” Her voice was heavy. She pointed to the tunnel from which we’d come.

 

Emerging from the ants’ nest were two of the largest humans I had ever seen. Each was seven feet tall and perhaps three hundred pounds of pure muscle stuffed into horsehide armor. Their blond hair glinted like silver floss. Jeweled rings glittered in their beards. Each man carried an oval shield and a spear, though I doubted they needed weapons to kill. They looked like they could crack open cannonballs with their bare hands.

 

I recognized them from their tattoos and the circular designs on their shields. Such warriors weren’t easy to forget.

 

“Germani.” Instinctively, I moved in front of Meg. The elite imperial bodyguards had been cold-blooded death reapers in ancient Rome. I doubted they’d gotten any sweeter over the centuries.

 

The two men glared at me. They had serpent tattoos curling around their necks, just like the ruffians who had jumped me in New York. The Germani parted, and their master climbed from the tunnel.

 

Nero hadn’t changed much in one thousand nine hundred and some-odd years. He appeared to be no more than thirty, but it was a hard thirty, his face haggard and his belly distended from too much partying. His mouth was fixed in a permanent sneer. His curly hair extended into a wraparound neck beard. His chin was so weak, I was tempted to create a GoFundMe campaign to buy him a better jaw.

 

He tried to compensate for his ugliness with an expensive Italian suit of purple wool, his gray shirt open to display gold chains. His shoes were hand-tooled leather, not the sort of thing to wear while stomping around in an ant pile. Then again, Nero had always had expensive, impractical tastes. That was perhaps the only thing I admired about him.

“Emperor Nero,” I said. “The Beast.”

 

He curled his lip. “Nero will do. It’s good to see you, my honored ancestor. I’m sorry I’ve been so lax about my offerings during the past few millennia, but”—he shrugged—“I haven’t needed you. I’ve done rather well on my own.”

My fists clenched. I wanted to strike down this pot-bellied emperor with a bolt of white-hot power, except that I had no bolts of white-hot power. I had no arrows. I had no singing voice left. Against Nero and his seven-foot-tall bodyguards, I had a Brazilian handkerchief, a packet of ambrosia, and some brass wind chimes.

 

“It’s me you want,” I said. “Cut these demigods down from their stakes. Let them leave with Meg. They’ve done nothing to you.”

 

Nero chuckled. “I’ll be happy to let them go once we’ve come to an agreement. As for Meg…” He smiled at her. “How are you, my dear?”

 

Meg said nothing. Her face was as hard and gray as a geyser god’s. At her feet, Peaches snarled and rustled his leafy wings.

 

One of Nero’s guards said something in his ear. The Emperor nodded. “Soon.”

 

He turned his attention back to me. “But where are my manners? Allow me to introduce my right hand, Vincius, and my left hand, Garius.”

The bodyguards pointed across to each other.

“Ah, sorry,” Nero corrected. “My right hand, Garius, and my left hand, Vincius. Those are the Romanized versions of their Batavi names, which I can’t pronounce. Usually I just call them Vince and Gary. Say hello, boys.”

Vince and Gary glowered at me.

“They have serpent tattoos,” I noted, “like those street thugs you sent to attack me.”

 

Nero shrugged. “I have many servants. Cade and Mikey are quite low on the pay scale. Their only job was to rattle you a bit, welcome you to my city.”

 

Your city.” I found it just like Nero to go claiming major metropolitan areas that clearly belonged to me. “And these two gentlemen…they are actually Germani from the ancient times? How?”

Nero made a snide little barking sound in the back of his nose. I’d forgotten how much I hated his laugh.

 

“Lord Apollo, please,” he said. “Even before Gaea commandeered the Doors of Death, souls escaped from Erebos all the time. It was quite easy for a god-emperor such as myself to call back my followers.”

“A god-emperor?” I growled. “You mean a delusional ex-emperor.”

Nero arched his eyebrows. “What made you a god, Apollo…back when you were one? Wasn’t it the power of your name, your sway over those who believed in you? I am no different.” He glanced to his left. “Vince, fall on your spear, please.”

 

Without hesitation, Vince planted the butt of his spear against the ground. He braced the point under his rib cage.

“Stop,” Nero said. “I changed my mind.”

Vince betrayed no relief. In fact, his eyes tightened with faint disappointment. He brought his spear back to his side.

 

Nero grinned at me. “You see? I hold the power of life and death over my worshippers, like any proper god should.”

 

I felt like I’d swallowed some gel capsule larvae. “The Germani were always crazy, much like you.” Nero put his hand to his chest. “I’m hurt! My barbarian friends are loyal subjects of the Julian dynasty!

And, of course, we are all descended from you, Lord Apollo.”

I didn’t need the reminder. I’d been so proud of my son, the original Octavian, later Caesar Augustus. After his death, his descendants became increasingly arrogant and unstable (which I blamed on their

 

mortal DNA; they certainly didn’t get those qualities from me). Nero had been the last of the Julian line. I had not wept when he died. Now here he was, as grotesque and chinless as ever.

Meg stood at my shoulder. “Wh-what do you want, Nero?”

Considering she was facing the man who killed her father, she sounded remarkably calm. I was grateful for her strength. It gave me hope to have a skilled dimachaerus and a ravenous peach baby at my side. Still, I did not like our odds against two Germani.

 

Nero’s eyes gleamed. “Straight to the point. I’ve always admired that about you, Meg. Really, it’s simple. You and Apollo will open the gates of Dodona for me. Then these six”—he gestured to the staked prisoners—“will be released.”

I shook my head. “You’ll destroy the grove. Then you’ll kill us.”

 

The emperor made that horrible bark again. “Not unless you force me to. I’m a reasonable god-emperor, Apollo! I’d much rather have the Grove of Dodona under my control if it can be managed, but I certainly can’t allow you to use it. You had your chance at being the guardian of the Oracles. You failed miserably. Now it’s my responsibility. Mine…and my partners’.”

 

“The two other emperors,” I said. “Who are they?”

Nero shrugged. “Good Romans—men who, like me, have the willpower to do what is needed.” “Triumvirates have never worked. They always lead to civil war.”

 

He smiled as if that idea did not bother him. “The three of us have come to an agreement. We have divided up the new empire…by which I mean North America. Once we have the Oracles, we’ll expand and do what Romans have always done best—conquer the world.”

 

I could only stare at him. “You truly learned nothing from your previous reign.”

“Oh, but I did! I’ve had centuries to reflect, plan, and prepare. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to be a god-emperor, unable to die but unable to fully live? There was a period of about three hundred years during the Middle Ages when my name was almost forgotten. I was little more than a mirage! Thank goodness for the Renaissance, when our Classical greatness was remembered. And then came the Internet. Oh, gods, I love the Internet! It is impossible for me to fade completely now. I am immortal on Wikipedia!”

 

I winced. I was now fully convinced of Nero’s insanity. Wikipedia was always getting stuff wrong about me.

 

He rolled his hand. “Yes, yes. You think I am crazy. I could explain my plans and prove otherwise, but I have a lot on my plate today. I need you and Meg to open those gates. They’ve resisted my best efforts, but together you two can do it. Apollo, you have an affinity with Oracles. Meg has a way with trees. Get to it. Please and thank you.”

 

“We would rather die,” I said. “Wouldn’t we, Meg?” No response.

 

I glanced over. A silvery streak glistened on Meg’s cheek. At first I thought one of her rhinestones had melted. Then I realized she was crying.

“Meg?”

Nero clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Oh, my. It seems we’ve had a slight miscommunication. You see, Apollo, Meg brought you here, just as I asked her to. Well done, my sweet.”

Meg wiped her face. “I—I didn’t mean…”

My heart compressed to the size of a pebble. “Meg, no. I can’t believe—”

 

I reached for her. Peaches snarled and inserted himself between us. I realized the karpos was not here to protect us from Nero. He was defending Meg from me.

“Meg?” I said. “This man killed your father! He’s a murderer!”

She stared at the ground. When she spoke, her voice was even more tortured than mine was when I sang in the anthill. “The Beast killed my father. This is Nero. He’s—he’s my stepfather.”

 

I could not fully grasp this before Nero spread his arms.

 

“That’s right, my darling,” he said. “And you’ve done a wonderful job. Come to Papa.”

 

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