The Hidden Oracle chapter 33

Parting is sorrow

Nothing about it is sweet

Don’t step on my face

 

THE TREES WERE using their inside voices.

 

As I stepped through the gateway, I realized they were still talking in conversational tones, babbling nonsensically like sleepwalkers at a cocktail party.

 

I scanned the grove. No sign of Meg. I called her name. The trees responded by raising their voices, driving me cross-eyed with dizziness.

 

I steadied myself on the nearest oak. “Watch it, man,” the tree said.

I lurched forward, the trees trading bits of verse as if playing a game of rhymes:

 

es of blue. ke the hue.

 

tward, burning. es turning. ana.

e banana.

 

piness approaches. pents and roaches.

 

None of it made sense, but each line carried the weight of prophecy. I felt as if dozens of important statements, each vital to my survival, were being blended together, loaded in a shotgun, and fired at my face.

(Oh, that’s a rather good image. I’ll have to use it in a haiku.) “Meg!” I called again.

 

Still no reply. The grove did not seem so large. How could she not hear me? How could I not see her? I slogged along, humming a perfect A 440 hertz tone to keep myself focused. When I reached the

 

second ring of trees, the oaks became more conversational. “Hey, buddy, got a quarter?” one asked.

Another tried to tell me a joke about a penguin and a nun walking into a Shake Shack.

A third oak was giving its neighbor an infomercial sales pitch about a food processor. “And you

 

won’t believe what it does with pasta!”

 

“Wow!” said the other tree. “It makes pasta, too?” “Fresh linguine in minutes!” the sales oak enthused.

 

I did not understand why an oak tree would want linguine, but I kept moving. I was afraid that if I listened too long, I would order the food processor for three easy installments of $39.99, and my sanity would be lost forever.

 

Finally, I reached the center of the grove. On the far side of the largest oak tree, Meg stood with her back to the trunk, her eyes closed tight. The wind chimes were still in her hand, but they hung forgotten at her side. The brass cylinders clanked, muted against her dress.

 

At her feet, Peaches rocked back and forth, giggling. “Apples? Peaches! Mangoes? Peaches!” “Meg.” I touched her shoulder.

 

She flinched. She focused on me as if I were a clever optical illusion. Her eyes simmered with fear. “It’s too much,” she said. “Too much.”

 

The voices had her in their grip. It was bad enough for me to endure—like a hundred radio stations playing at once, forcibly splitting my brain into different channels. But I was used to prophecies. Meg, on the other hand, was a daughter of Demeter. The trees liked her. They were all trying to share with her, to get her attention at the same time. Soon they would permanently fracture her mind.

 

“The wind chimes,” I said. “Hang them in the tree!”

I pointed to the lowest branch, well above our heads. Alone, neither of us could reach it, but if I gave Meg a boost…

 

Meg backed away, shaking her head. The voices of Dodona were so chaotic I wasn’t sure she had heard me. If she had, she either didn’t understand or didn’t trust me.

 

I had to tamp down my feelings of betrayal. Meg was Nero’s stepdaughter. She had been sent to lure me here, and our whole friendship was a lie. She had no right to mistrust me.

 

But I could not stay bitter. If I blamed her for the way Nero had twisted her emotions, I was no better than the Beast. Also, just because she had lied about being my friend did not mean I wasn’t hers. She was in danger. I was not going to leave her to the madness of the grove’s penguin jokes.

I crouched and laced my fingers to make a foothold. “Please.”

To my left, Peaches rolled onto his back and wailed, “Linguine? Peaches!”

 

Meg grimaced. I could see from her eyes that she was deciding to cooperate with me—not because she trusted me, but because Peaches was suffering.

 

Just when I thought my feelings could not be hurt any worse. It was one thing to be betrayed. It was another thing to be considered less important than a diapered fruit spirit.

 

Nevertheless, I remained steady as Meg placed her left foot in my hands. With all my remaining strength, I hoisted her up. She stepped onto my shoulders, then planted one red sneaker on top of my head. I made a mental note to put a safety label on my scalp: WARNING, TOP STEP IS NOT FOR STANDING.

 

With my back against the oak, I could feel the voices of the grove coursing up its trunk and drumming through its bark. The central tree seemed to be one giant antenna for crazy talk.

 

My knees were about to buckle. Meg’s treads were grinding into my forehead. The A 440 I had been humming rapidly deflated to a G sharp.

 

Finally, Meg tied the wind chimes to the branch. She jumped down as my legs collapsed, and we both ended up sprawled in the dirt.

 

The brass chimes swayed and clanged, picking notes out of the wind and making chords from the dissonance.

The grove hushed, as if the trees were listening and thinking, Oooh, pretty.

Then the ground trembled. The central oak shook with such energy, it rained acorns. Meg got to her feet. She approached the tree and touched its trunk.

 

“Speak,” she commanded.

 

A single voice boomed forth from the wind chimes, like a cheerleader screaming through a megaphone:

 

re once was a god named Apollo

 

o plunged in a cave blue and hollow n a three-seater

bronze fire-eater

forced death and madness to swallow

 

The wind chimes stilled. The grove settled into tranquility, as if satisfied with the death sentence it had given me.

 

 

Oh, the horror!

 

A sonnet I could have handled. A quatrain would have been cause for celebration. But only the deadliest prophecies are couched in the form of a limerick.

 

I stared at the wind chimes, hoping they would speak again and correct themselves. Oops, our mistake! That prophecy was for a different Apollo!

 

But my luck was not that good. I had been handed an edict worse than a thousand advertisements for pasta makers.

 

Peaches rose. He shook his head and hissed at the oak tree, which expressed my own sentiments perfectly. He hugged Meg’s calf as if she were the only thing keeping him from falling off the world. The scene was almost sweet, except for the karpos’s fangs and glowing eyes.

Meg regarded me warily. The lenses of her glasses were spiderwebbed with cracks. “That prophecy,” she said. “Did you understand it?”

I swallowed a mouthful of soot. “Perhaps. Some of it. We’ll need to talk to Rachel—”

“There’s no more we.” Meg’s tone was as acrid as the volcanic gas of Delphi. “Do what you need to do. That’s my final order.”

 

This hit me like a spear shaft to the chin, despite the fact that she had lied to me and betrayed me. “Meg, you can’t.” I couldn’t keep the shakiness out of my voice. “You claimed my service. Until my

 

trials are over—” “I release you.”

 

“No!” I could not stand the idea of being abandoned. Not again. Not by this ragamuffin Dumpster queen whom I’d learned to care about so much. “You can’t possibly believe in Nero now. You heard him explain his plans. He means to level this entire island! You saw what he tried to do to his hostages.”

 

“He—he wouldn’t have let them burn. He promised. He held back. You saw it. That wasn’t the Beast.”

 

My rib cage felt like an over-tightened harp. “Meg…Nero is the Beast. He killed your father.” “No! Nero is my stepfather. My dad…my dad unleashed the Beast. He made it angry.” “Meg—”

 

“Stop!” She covered her ears. “You don’t know him. Nero is good to me. I can talk to him. I can make it okay.”

 

Her denial was so complete, so irrational, I realized there was no way I could argue with her. She reminded me painfully of myself when I fell to earth—how I had refused to accept my new reality. Without Meg’s help, I would’ve gotten myself killed. Now our roles were reversed.

I edged toward her, but Peaches’s snarl stopped me in my tracks.

 

Meg backed away. “We’re done.”

 

“We can’t be,” I said. “We’re bound, whether you like it or not.”

It occurred to me that she’d said the exact same thing to me only a few days before.

 

She gave me one last look through her cracked lenses. I would have given anything for her to blow a raspberry. I wanted to walk the streets of Manhattan with her doing cartwheels in the intersections. I missed hobbling with her through the Labyrinth, our legs tied together. I would’ve settled for a good garbage fight in an alley. Instead, she turned and fled, with Peaches at her heels. It seemed to me that they dissolved into the trees, just the way Daphne had done long ago.

Above my head, a breeze made the wind chimes jingle. This time, no voices came from the trees. I didn’t know how long Dodona would remain silent, but I didn’t want to be here if the oaks decided to start telling jokes again.

 

I turned and saw something strange at my feet: an arrow with an oak shaft and green fletching. There shouldn’t have been an arrow. I hadn’t brought any into the grove. But in my dazed state, I

 

didn’t question this. I did what any archer would do: I retrieved it, and returned it to my quiver.

 

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