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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The Hidden Oracle chapter 31

Listen to the trees

The trees know what is up, yo

They know all the things

 

MEG’S RESOLVE may have been wavering, but Peaches’s was not.

 

When I hesitated to follow Meg’s orders, the grain spirit bared his fangs and hissed, “Peaches,” as if that was a new torture technique.

 

“Fine,” I told Meg, my voice turning bitter. The truth was, I had no choice. I could feel Meg’s command sinking into my muscles, compelling me to obey.

 

I faced the fused oaks and put my hands against their trunks. I felt no oracular power within. I heard no voices—just heavy stubborn silence. The only message the trees seemed to be sending was: GO AWAY.

 

“If we do this,” I told Meg, “Nero will destroy the grove.” “He won’t.”

 

“He has to. He can’t control Dodona. Its power is too ancient. He can’t let anyone else use it.”

 

Meg placed her hands against the trees, just below mine. “Concentrate. Open them. Please. You don’t want to anger the Beast.”

 

She said this in a low voice—again speaking as if the Beast was someone I had not yet met…a boogeyman lurking under the bed, not a man in a purple suit standing a few feet away.

 

I could not refuse Meg’s orders, but perhaps I should have protested more vigorously. Meg might have backed down if I called her bluff. But then Nero or Peaches or the Germani would have just killed me. I will confess to you: I was afraid of dying. Courageously, nobly, handsomely afraid, true. But afraid nonetheless.

 

I closed my eyes. I sensed the trees’ implacable resistance, their mistrust of outsiders. I knew that if I forced open these gates, the grove would be destroyed. Yet I reached out with all my willpower and sought the voice of prophecy, drawing it to me.

 

I thought of Rhea, Queen of the Titans, who had first planted this grove. Despite being a child of Gaea and Ouranos, despite being married to the cannibal king Kronos, Rhea had managed to cultivate wisdom and kindness. She had given birth to a new, better breed of immortals. (If I do say so myself.) She represented the best of the ancient times.

 

True, she had withdrawn from the world and started a pottery studio in Woodstock, but she still cared about Dodona. She had sent me here to open the grove, to share its power. She was not the kind of goddess who believed in closed gates or NO TRESPASSING signs. I began to hum softly “This Land Is Your Land.”

 

The bark grew warm under my fingertips. The tree roots trembled.

 

I glanced at Meg. She was deep in concentration, leaning against the trunks as if trying to push them over. Everything about her was familiar: her ratty pageboy hair, her glittering cat-eye glasses, her runny nose and chewed cuticles and faint scent of apple pie.

 

But she was someone I didn’t know at all: stepdaughter to the immortal crazy Nero. A member of the Imperial Household. What did that even mean? I pictured the Brady Bunch in purple togas, lined up on the family staircase with Nero at the bottom in Alice’s maid uniform. Having a vivid imagination is a terrible curse.

 

Unfortunately for the grove, Meg was also the daughter of Demeter. The trees responded to her power. The twin oaks rumbled. Their trunks began to move.

 

I wanted to stop, but I was caught up in the momentum. The grove seemed to be drawing on my power now. My hands stuck to the trees. The gates opened wider, forcibly spreading my arms. For a terrifying moment, I thought the trees might keep moving and rip me limb from limb. Then they stopped. The roots settled. The bark cooled and released me.

I stumbled back, exhausted. Meg remained, transfixed, in the newly opened gateway.

 

On the other side were…well, more trees. Despite the winter cold, the young oaks rose tall and green, growing in concentric circles around a slightly larger specimen in the center. Littering the ground were acorns glowing with a faint amber light. Around the grove stood a protective wall of trees even more formidable than the ones in the antechamber. Above, another tightly woven dome of branches guarded the place from aerial intruders.

 

Before I could warn her, Meg stepped across the threshold. The voices exploded. Imagine forty nail guns firing into your brain from all directions at once. The words were babble, but they tore at my sanity, demanding my attention. I covered my ears. The noise just got louder and more persistent.

 

Peaches clawed frantically at the dirt, trying to bury his head. Vince and Gary writhed on the ground. Even the unconscious demigods thrashed and moaned on their stakes.

 

Nero reeled, his hand raised as if to block an intense light. “Meg, control the voices! Do it now!” Meg didn’t appear hurt by the noise, but she looked bewildered. “They’re saying something…” She

 

swept her hands through the air, pulling at invisible threads to untangle the pandemonium. “They’re agitated. I can’t—Wait…”

Suddenly the voices shut off, as if they’d made their point.

Meg turned toward Nero, her eyes wide. “It’s true. The trees told me you mean to burn them.” The Germani groaned, half-conscious on the ground. Nero recovered more quickly. He raised a

 

finger, admonishing, guiding. “Listen to me, Meg. I’d hoped the grove could be useful, but obviously it is fractured and confused. You can’t believe what it says. It’s the mouthpiece of a senile Titan queen. The grove must be razed. It’s the only way, Meg. You understand that, don’t you?”

He kicked Gary over onto his back and rifled through the bodyguard’s pouches. Then Nero stood, triumphantly holding a box of matches.

“After the fire, we’ll rebuild,” he said. “It will be glorious!”

Meg stared at him as if noticing his horrendous neck beard for the first time. “Wh-what are you talking about?”

 

“He’s going to burn and level Long Island,” I said. “Then he’ll make it his private domain, just like he did with Rome.”

 

Nero laughed in exasperation. “Long Island is a mess anyway! No one will miss it. My new imperial complex will extend from Manhattan to Montauk—the greatest palace ever built! We’ll have private rivers and lakes, one hundred miles of beachfront property, gardens big enough for their own zip codes. I’ll build each member of my household a private skyscraper. Oh, Meg, imagine the parties we will have in our new Domus Aurea!”

 

The truth was a heavy thing. Meg’s knees buckled under its weight.

 

“You can’t.” Her voice shook. “The woods—I’m the daughter of Demeter.”

“You’re my daughter,” Nero corrected. “And I care for you deeply. Which is why you need to move aside. Quickly.”

 

He set a match to the striking surface of the box. “As soon as I light these stakes, our human torches will send a wave of fire straight through that gateway. Nothing will be able to stop it. The entire forest will burn.”

“Please!” Meg cried.

 

“Come along, dearest.” Nero’s frown hardened. “Apollo is of no use to us anymore. You don’t want to wake the Beast, do you?”

He lit his match and stepped toward the nearest stake, where my son Austin was bound.

 

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The Hidden Oracle chapter 30

I school McCaffrey

Yo, girl, your stepdad is wack

Why won’t she listen?

 

I HAD BEEN BETRAYED BEFORE.

 

The memories came flooding back to me in a painful tide. Once, my former girlfriend Cyrene took up with Ares just to get back at me. Another time, Artemis shot me in the groin because I was flirting with her Hunters. In 1928, Alexander Fleming failed to give me credit for inspiring his discovery of penicillin. I mean, ouch. That stung.

 

But I couldn’t remember ever being so wrong about someone as I had been about Meg. Well…at least not since Irving Berlin. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”? I remember telling him. You’ll never make it big with a corny song like that!

 

“Meg, we are friends.” My voice sounded petulant even to myself. “How could you do this to me?” Meg looked down at her red sneakers—the primary-colored shoes of a traitor. “I tried to tell you, to

warn you.”

 

“She has a good heart.” Nero smiled. “But, Apollo, you and Meg have been friends for just a few days —and only because I asked Meg to befriend you. I have been Meg’s stepfather, protector, and caretaker for years. She is a member of the Imperial Household.”

 

I stared at my beloved Dumpster waif. Yes, somehow over the past week she had become beloved to me. I could not imagine her as Imperial anything—definitely not as a part of Nero’s entourage.

 

“I risked my life for you,” I said in amazement. “And that actually means something, because I can die!”

 

Nero clapped politely. “We’re all impressed, Apollo. Now, if you’d open the gates. They’ve defied me for too long.”

 

I tried to glare at Meg, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt too hurt and vulnerable. We gods do not like feeling vulnerable. Besides, Meg wasn’t even looking at me.

 

In a daze, I turned to the oak tree gates. I saw now that their fused trunks were marred from Nero’s previous efforts—chain-saw scars, burn marks, bites from ax blades, even some bullet holes. All these had barely chipped the outer bark. The most damaged area was an inch-deep impression in the shape of a human hand, where the wood had bubbled and peeled away. I glanced at the unconscious face of Paulie the geyser god, strung up and bound with the five demigods.

 

“Nero, what have you done?”

“Oh, a number of things! We found a way into this antechamber weeks ago. The Labyrinth has a

 

convenient opening in the myrmekes’ nest. But getting through these gates—”

 

“You forced the palikos to help you?” I had to restrain myself from throwing my wind chimes at the emperor. “You used a nature spirit to destroy nature? Meg, how can you tolerate this?”

Peaches growled. For once I had the feeling that the grain spirit might be in agreement with me. Meg’s expression was as closed up as the gates. She stared intently at the bones littering the field.

“Come now,” Nero said. “Meg knows there are good nature spirits, and bad ones. This geyser god was annoying. He kept asking us to fill out surveys. Besides, he shouldn’t have ventured so far from his source of power. He was quite easy to capture. His steam, as you can see, didn’t do us much good anyway.”

“And the five demigods?” I demanded. “Did you ‘use’ them, too?”

 

“Of course. I didn’t plan on luring them here, but every time we attacked the gates, the grove started wailing. I suppose it was calling for help, and the demigods couldn’t resist. The first to wander in was this one.” He pointed to Cecil Markowitz. “The last two were your own children—Austin and Kayla, yes? They showed up after we forced Paulie to steam-broil the trees. I guess the grove was quite nervous about that attempt. We got two demigods for the price of one!”

 

I lost control. I let out a guttural howl and charged the emperor, intending to wring his hairy excuse for a neck. The Germani would have killed me before I ever got that far, but I was saved the indignity. I tripped over a human pelvis and belly-surfed through the bones.

“Apollo!” Meg ran toward me.

 

I rolled over and kicked at her like a fussy child. “I don’t need your help! Don’t you understand who your protector is? He’s a monster! He’s the emperor who—”

 

“Don’t say it,” Nero warned. “If you say ‘who fiddled while Rome burned,’ I will have Vince and Gary flay you for a set of hide armor. You know as well as I do, Apollo, we didn’t have fiddles back then. And I did not start the Great Fire of Rome.”

I struggled to my feet. “But you profited from it.”

 

Facing Nero, I remembered all the tawdry details of his rule—the extravagance and cruelty that had made him so embarrassing to me, his forefather. Nero was that relative you never wanted to invite to Lupercalia dinner.

 

“Meg,” I said, “your stepfather watched as seventy percent of Rome was destroyed. Tens of thousands died.”

 

“I was thirty miles away in Antium!” Nero snarled. “I rushed back to the city and personally led the fire brigades!”

“Only when the fire threatened your palace.”

Nero rolled his eyes. “I can’t help it if I arrived just in time to save the most important building!” Meg cupped her hands over her ears. “Stop arguing. Please.”

I didn’t stop. Talking seemed better than my other options, like helping Nero or dying.

“After the Great Fire,” I told her, “instead of rebuilding the houses on Palatine Hill, Nero leveled the neighborhood and built a new palace—the Domus Aurea.”

 

Nero got a dreamy look on his face. “Ah, yes…the House of Gold. It was beautiful, Meg! I had my own lake, three hundred rooms, frescoes of gold, mosaics done in pearls and diamonds—I could finally live like a human being!”

 

“You had the nerve to put a hundred-foot-tall bronze statue in your front lawn!” I said. “A statue of yourself as Sol-Apollo, the sun god. In other words, you claimed to be me.”

 

“Indeed,” Nero agreed. “Even after I died, that statue lived on. I understand it became famous as the Colossus of Nero! They moved it to the gladiators’ amphitheater and everyone began calling the theater after the statue—the Colosseum.” Nero puffed up his chest. “Yes…the statue was the perfect choice.”

His tone sounded even more sinister than usual.

 

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

 

“Hmm? Oh, nothing.” He checked his watch…a mauve-and-gold Rolex. “The point is, I had style! The people loved me!”

 

I shook my head. “They turned against you. The people of Rome were sure you’d started the Great Fire, so you scapegoated the Christians.”

 

I was aware that this arguing was pointless. If Meg had hidden her true identity all this time, I doubted I could change her mind now. But perhaps I could stall long enough for the cavalry to arrive. If only I had a cavalry.

 

Nero waved dismissively. “But the Christians were terrorists, you see. Perhaps they didn’t start the fire, but they were causing all sorts of other trouble. I recognized that before anyone else!”

 

“He fed them to the lions,” I told Meg. “He burned them as human torches, the way he will burn these six.”

 

Meg’s face turned green. She gazed at the unconscious prisoners on the stakes. “Nero, you wouldn’t

 

—”

“They will be released,” Nero promised, “as long as Apollo cooperates.”

 

“Meg, you can’t trust him,” I said. “The last time he did this, he strung up Christians all over his backyard and burned them to illuminate his garden party. I was there. I remember the screaming.”

Meg clutched her stomach.

 

“My dear, don’t believe his stories!” Nero said. “That was just propaganda invented by my enemies.” Meg studied the face of Paulie the geyser god. “Nero…you didn’t say anything about making them into

torches.”

“They won’t burn,” he said, straining to soften his voice. “It won’t come to that. The Beast will not have to act.”

 

“You see, Meg?” I wagged a finger at the emperor. “It’s never a good sign when someone starts referring to himself in the third person. Zeus used to scold me about that constantly!”

Vince and Gary stepped forward, their knuckles whitening on their spears.

 

“I would be careful,” Nero warned. “My Germani are sensitive about insults to the Imperial person. Now, as much as I love talking about myself, we’re on a schedule.” He checked his watch again. “You’ll open the gates. Then Meg will see if she can use the trees to interpret the future. If so, wonderful! If not… well, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

“Meg,” I said, “he’s a madman.”

At her feet, Peaches hissed protectively.

Meg’s chin quivered. “Nero cared about me, Apollo. He gave me a home. He taught me to fight.” “You said he killed your father!”

 

“No!” She shook her head adamantly, a look of panic in her eyes. “No, that’s not what I said. The Beast killed him.”

“But—”

Nero snorted. “Oh, Apollo…you understand so little. Meg’s father was weak. She doesn’t even remember him. He couldn’t protect her. I raised her. I kept her alive.”

 

My heart sank even further. I did not understand everything Meg had been through, or what she was feeling now, but I knew Nero. I saw how easily he could have twisted a scared child’s understanding of the world—a little girl all alone, yearning for safety and acceptance after her father’s murder, even if that acceptance came from her father’s killer. “Meg…I am so sorry.”

 

Another tear traced her cheek.

“She doesn’t NEED sympathy.” Nero’s voice turned as hard as bronze. “Now, my dear, if you would be so kind, open the gates. If Apollo objects, remind him that he is bound to follow your orders.”

Meg swallowed. “Apollo, don’t make it harder. Please…help me open the gates.”

 

I shook my head. “Not by choice.”

 

“Then I—I command you. Help me. Now.”

 

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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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The Mortal Instruments chapter 28

Parenting advice:

Mamas, don’t let your larvae

Grow up to be ants

 

MEG THRASHED IN HER GOO CASE. “Get me out of here!”

 

“I don’t have a blade!” My fingers crept to the ukulele string around my neck. “Actually I have your blades, I mean your rings—”

 

“You don’t need to cut me out. When the ant dumped me here, I dropped the packet of seeds. It should be close.”

She was right. I spotted the crumpled pouch near her feet.

I inched toward it, keeping one eye on the ants. They stood together at the entrance as if hesitant to come closer. Perhaps the trail of dead ants leading to this room had given them pause.

“Nice ants,” I said. “Excellent calm ants.”

 

I crouched and scooped up the packet. A quick glance inside told me half a dozen seeds remained. “Now what, Meg?”

“Throw them on the goo,” Meg said.

I gestured to the geraniums bursting from her neck and armpit. “How many seeds did that?” “One.”

 

“Then this many will choke you to death. I’ve turned too many people I cared about into flowers, Meg. I won’t—”

“JUST DO IT!”

The ants did not like her tone. They advanced, snapping their mandibles. I shook the geranium seeds over Meg’s cocoon, then nocked my arrow. Killing one ant would do no good if the other three tore us apart, so I chose a different target. I shot the roof of the cavern, just above the ants’ heads.

 

It was a desperate idea, but I’d had success bringing down buildings with arrows before. In 464 BCE, I caused an earthquake that wiped out most of Sparta by hitting a fault line at the right angle. (I never liked the Spartans much.)

 

This time, I had less luck. The arrow embedded itself in the packed earth with a dull thunk. The ants took another step forward, acid dripping from their mouths. Behind me, Meg struggled to free herself from her cocoon, which was now covered in a shag carpet of purple flowers.

 

She needed more time.

Out of ideas, I tugged my Brazilian-flag handkerchief from my neck and waved it like a maniac, trying to channel my inner Paolo.

 

“BACK, FOUL ANTS!” I yelled. “BRASIL!”

 

The ants wavered—perhaps because of the bright colors, or my voice, or my sudden insane confidence. While they hesitated, cracks spread across the roof from my arrow’s impact site, and then thousands of tons of earth collapsed on top of the myrmekes.

When the dust cleared, half the room was gone, along with the ants.

 

I looked at my handkerchief. “I’ll be Styxed. It does have magic power. I can never tell Paolo about this or he’ll be insufferable.”

“Over here!” Meg yelled.

I turned. Another myrmeke was crawling over a pile of carcasses—apparently from a second exit I had failed to notice behind the disgusting food stores.

 

Before I could think what to do, Meg roared and burst from her cage, spraying geraniums in every direction. She shouted, “My rings!”

 

I yanked them from my neck and tossed them through the air. As soon as Meg caught them, two golden scimitars flashed into her hands.

 

The myrmeke barely had time to think Uh-oh before Meg charged. She sliced off his armored head. His body collapsed in a steaming heap.

 

Meg turned to me. Her face was a tempest of guilt, misery, and bitterness. I was afraid she might use her swords on me.

“Apollo, I…” Her voice broke.

I supposed she was still suffering from the effects of my song. She was shaken to her core. I made a mental note never again to sing so honestly when a mortal might be listening.

 

“It’s all right, Meg,” I said. “I should be apologizing to you. I got you into this mess.” Meg shook her head. “You don’t understand. I—”

 

An enraged shriek echoed through the chamber, shaking the compromised ceiling and raining clods of dirt on our heads. The tone of the scream reminded me of Hera whenever she stormed through the hallways of Olympus, yelling at me for leaving the godly toilet seat up.

 

“That’s the queen ant,” I guessed. “We need to leave.”

Meg pointed her sword toward the room’s only remaining exit. “But the sound came from there. We’ll be walking in her direction.”

 

“Exactly. So perhaps we should hold off on making amends with each other, eh? We might still get each other killed.”

 

 

We found the queen ant. Hooray.

 

All corridors must have led to the queen. They radiated from her chamber like spikes on a morning star. Her Majesty was three times the size of her largest soldiers—a towering mass of black chitin and barbed appendages, with diaphanous oval wings folded against her back. Her eyes were glassy swimming pools of onyx. Her abdomen was a pulsing translucent sac filled with glowing eggs. The sight of it made me regret ever inventing gel capsule medications.

 

Her swollen abdomen might slow her down in a fight, but she was so large, she could intercept us before we reached the nearest exit. Those mandibles would snap us in half like dried twigs.

 

“Meg,” I said, “how do you feel about dual-wielding scimitars against this lady?” Meg looked appalled. “She’s a mother giving birth.”

 

“Yes…and she’s an insect, which you hate. And her children were ripening you up for dinner.” Meg frowned. “Still…I don’t feel right about it.”

 

The queen hissed—a dry spraying noise. I imagined she would have already hosed us down with acid

 

if she weren’t worried about the long-term effects of corrosives on her larvae. Queen ants can’t be too careful these days.

“You have another idea?” I asked Meg. “Preferably one that does not involve dying?”

She pointed to a tunnel directly behind the queen’s clutch of eggs. “We need to go that way. It leads to the grove.”

“How can you be sure?”

Meg tilted her head. “Trees. It’s like…I can hear them growing.”

 

That reminded me of something the Muses once told me—how they could actually hear the ink drying on new pages of poetry. I suppose it made sense that a daughter of Demeter could hear the growth of plants. Also, it didn’t surprise me that the tunnel we needed was the most dangerous one to reach.

 

“Sing,” Meg told me. “Sing like you did before.” “I—I can’t. My voice is almost gone.”

Besides, I thought, I don’t want to risk losing you again.

 

I had freed Meg, so perhaps I’d fulfilled my oath to Pete the geyser god. Still, by singing and practicing archery, I had broken my oath upon the River Styx not once but twice. More singing would only make me more of a scofflaw. Whatever cosmic punishments awaited me, I did not want them to fall on Meg.

 

Her Majesty snapped at us—a warning shot, telling us to back off. A few feet closer and my head would have rolled in the dirt.

 

I burst into song—or rather, I did the best I could with the raspy voice that remained. I began to rap. I started with the rhythm boom chicka chicka. I busted out some footwork the Nine Muses and I had been working on just before the war with Gaea.

 

The queen arched her back. I don’t think she had expected to be rapped to today. I gave Meg a look that clearly meant Help me out!

 

She shook her head. Give the girl two swords and she was a maniac. Ask her to lay down a simple beat and she suddenly got stage fright.

Fine, I thought. I’ll do it by myself.

I launched into “Dance” by Nas, which I have to say was one of the most moving odes to mothers that I ever inspired an artist to write. (You’re welcome, Nas.) I took some liberties with the lyrics. I may have changed angel to brood mother and woman to insect. But the sentiment remained. I serenaded the pregnant queen, channeling my love for my own dear mother, Leto. When I sang that I could only wish to marry a woman (or insect) so fine someday, my heartbreak was real. I would never have such a partner. It was not in my destiny.

 

The queen’s antennae quivered. Her head seesawed back and forth. Eggs kept extruding from her abdomen, which made it difficult for me to concentrate, but I persevered.

 

When I was done, I dropped to one knee and held up my arms in tribute, waiting for the queen’s verdict. Either she would kill me or she would not. I was spent. I had poured everything into that song and could not rap another line.

Next to me, Meg stood very still, gripping her swords.

 

Her Majesty shuddered. She threw back her head and wailed—a sound more brokenhearted than angry.

 

She leaned down and gently nudged my chest, pushing me in the direction of the tunnel we needed. “Thank you,” I croaked. “I—I’m sorry about the ants I killed.”

 

The queen purred and clicked, extruding a few more eggs as if to say, Don’t worry; I can always make more.

 

I stroked the queen ant’s forehead. “May I call you Mama?” Her mouth frothed in a pleased sort of way.

 

“Apollo,” Meg urged, “let’s go before she changes her mind.”

 

I was not sure Mama would change her mind. I got the feeling she had accepted my fealty and adopted us into her brood. But Meg was right; we needed to hurry. Mama watched as we edged around her clutch of eggs.

We plunged into the tunnel and saw the glow of daylight above us.

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The Hidden Oracle chapter 27

I apologize

For pretty much everything

Wow, I’m a good guy

 

“WAKE,” SAID A VOICE.

 

I opened my eyes and saw a ghost—his face just as precious to me as Daphne’s. I knew his copper skin, his kind smile, the dark curls of his hair, and those eyes as purple as senatorial robes.

“Hyacinthus,” I sobbed. “I’m so sorry…”

 

He turned his face toward the sunlight, revealing the ugly dent above his left ear where the discus had struck him. My own wounded face throbbed in sympathy.

 

“Seek the caverns,” he said. “Near the springs of blue. Oh, Apollo…your sanity will be taken away, but do not…”

 

His image faded and began to retreat. I rose from my sickbed. I rushed after him and grabbed his shoulders. “Do not what? Please don’t leave me again!”

 

My vision cleared. I found myself by the window in Cabin Seven, holding a ceramic pot of purple and red hyacinths. Nearby, looking very concerned, Will and Nico stood as if ready to catch me.

“He’s talking to the flowers,” Nico noted. “Is that normal?” “Apollo,” Will said, “you had a concussion. I healed you, but—” “These hyacinths,” I demanded. “Have they always been here?”

 

Will frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know where they came from, but…” He took the flowerpot from my hands and set it back on the windowsill. “Let’s worry about you, okay?”

 

Usually that would’ve been excellent advice, but now I could only stare at the hyacinths and wonder if they were some sort of message. How cruel to see them—the flowers that I had created to honor my fallen love, with their plumes stained red like his blood or hued violet like his eyes. They bloomed so cheerfully in the window, reminding me of the joy I had lost.

 

Nico rested his hand on Will’s shoulder. “Apollo, we were worried. Will was especially.” Seeing them together, supporting each other, made my heart feel even heavier. During my delirium,

 

both of my great loves had visited me. Now, once again, I was devastatingly alone. Still, I had a task to complete. A friend needed my help.

“Meg is in trouble,” I said. “How long was I unconscious?” Will and Nico glanced at each other.

 

“It’s about noon now,” Will said. “You showed up on the green around six this morning. When Meg didn’t return with you, we wanted to search the woods for her, but Chiron wouldn’t let us.”

 

“Chiron was absolutely correct,” I said. “I won’t allow any others to put themselves at risk. But I must hurry. Meg has until tonight at the latest.”

“Then what happens?” Nico asked.

I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t even think about it without losing my nerve. I looked down. Aside from Paolo’s Brazilian-flag bandana and my ukulele-string necklace, I was wearing only my boxer shorts. My offensive flabbiness was on display for everyone to see, but I no longer cared about that. (Well, not much, anyway.) “I have to get dressed.”

 

I staggered back to my cot. I fumbled through my meager supplies and found Percy Jackson’s Led Zeppelin T-shirt. I tugged it on. It seemed more appropriate than ever.

 

Will hovered nearby. “Look, Apollo, I don’t think you’re back to a hundred percent.” “I’ll be fine.” I pulled on my jeans. “I have to save Meg.”

 

“Let us help you,” Nico said. “Tell us where she is and I can shadow-travel—” “No!” I snapped. “No, you have to stay here and protect the camp.”

 

Will’s expression reminded me very much of his mother, Naomi—that look of trepidation she got just before she went onstage. “Protect the camp from what?”

 

“I—I’m not sure. You must tell Chiron the emperors have returned. Or rather, they never went away. They’ve been plotting, building their resources for centuries.”

 

Nico’s eyes glinted warily. “When you say emperors—” “I mean the Roman ones.”

 

Will stepped back. “You’re saying the emperors of ancient Rome are alive? How? The Doors of Death?”

 

“No.” I could barely speak through the taste of bile. “The emperors made themselves gods. They had their own temples and altars. They encouraged the people to worship them.”

“But that was just propaganda,” Nico said. “They weren’t really divine.”

I laughed mirthlessly. “Gods are sustained by worship, son of Hades. They continue to exist because of the collective memories of a culture. It’s true for the Olympians; it’s also true for the emperors. Somehow, the most powerful of them have survived. All these centuries, they have clung to half-life, hiding, waiting to reclaim their power.”

Will shook his head. “That’s impossible. How—?”

 

“I don’t know!” I tried to steady my breathing. “Tell Rachel the men behind Triumvirate Holdings are former emperors of Rome. They’ve been plotting against us all this time, and we gods have been blind.

Blind.”

 

I pulled on my coat. The ambrosia Nico had given me yesterday was still in the left pocket. In the right pocket, Rhea’s wind chimes clanked, though I had no idea how they’d gotten there.

 

“The Beast is planning some sort of attack on the camp,” I said. “I don’t know what, and I don’t know when, but tell Chiron you must be prepared. I have to go.”

 

“Wait!” Will said as I reached the door. “Who is the Beast? Which emperor are we dealing with?” “The worst of my descendants.” My fingers dug into the doorframe. “The Christians called him the

Beast because he burned them alive. Our enemy is Emperor Nero.”

 

 

They must have been too stunned to follow me.

 

I ran toward the armory. Several campers gave me strange looks. Some called after me, offering help, but I ignored them. I could only think about Meg alone in the myrmekes’ lair, and the visions I’d had of Daphne, Rhea, and Hyacinthus—all of them urging me onward, telling me to do the impossible in this inadequate mortal form.

 

When I reached the armory, I scanned the rack of bows. My hand trembling, I picked out the weapon

 

Meg had tried to give me the day before. It was carved from mountain laurel wood. The bitter irony appealed to me.

 

I had sworn not to use a bow until I was a god again. But I had also sworn not to play music, and I had already broken that part of the oath in the most egregious, Neil-Diamondy way possible.

The curse of the River Styx could kill me in its slow cancerous way, or Zeus could strike me down. But my oath to save Meg McCaffrey had to come first.

 

I turned my face to the sky. “If you want to punish me, Father, be my guest, but have the courage to hurt me directly, not my mortal companion. BE A MAN!”

 

To my surprise, the skies remained silent. Lightning did not vaporize me. Perhaps Zeus was too taken aback to react, but I knew he would never overlook such an insult.

To Tartarus with him. I had work to do.

I grabbed a quiver and stuffed it with all the extra arrows I could find. Then I ran for the woods, Meg’s two rings jangling on my makeshift necklace. Too late, I realized I had forgotten my combat ukulele, but I had no time to turn back. My singing voice would have to be enough.

I’m not sure how I found the nest.

 

Perhaps the forest simply allowed me to reach it, knowing that I was marching to my death. I’ve found that when one is searching for danger, it’s never hard to find.

 

Soon I was crouched behind a fallen tree, studying the myrmekes’ lair in the clearing ahead. To call the place an anthill would be like calling Versailles Palace a single-family home. Earthen ramparts rose almost to the tops of the surrounding trees—a hundred feet at least. The circumference could have accommodated a Roman hippodrome. A steady stream of soldiers and drones swarmed in and out of the mound. Some carried fallen trees. One, inexplicably, was dragging a 1967 Chevy Impala.

 

How many ants would I be facing? I had no idea. After you reach the number impossible, there’s no point in counting.

I nocked an arrow and stepped into the clearing.

When the nearest myrmeke spotted me, he dropped his Chevy. He watched me approach, his antennae bobbing. I ignored him and strolled past, heading for the nearest tunnel entrance. That confused him even more.

Several other ants gathered to watch.

 

I’ve learned that if you act like you are supposed to be somewhere, most people (or ants) will not confront you. Normally, acting confident isn’t a problem for me. Gods are allowed to be anywhere. It was a bit tougher for Lester Papadopoulos, dork teen extraordinaire, but I made it all the way to the nest without being challenged.

I plunged inside and began to sing.

 

This time I needed no ukulele. I needed no muse for my inspiration. I remembered Daphne’s face in the trees. I remembered Hyacinthus turning away, his death wound glistening on his scalp. My voice filled with anguish. I sang of heartbreak. Rather than collapsing under my own despair, I projected it outward.

 

The tunnels amplified my voice, carrying it through the nest, making the entire hill my musical instrument.

 

Each time I passed an ant, it curled its legs and touched its forehead to the floor, its antennae quivering from the vibrations of my voice.

 

Had I been a god, the song would have been stronger, but this was enough. I was impressed by how much sorrow a human voice could convey.

 

I wandered deeper into the hill. I had no idea where I was going until I spotted a geranium blooming from the tunnel floor.

My song faltered.

Meg. She must have regained consciousness. She had dropped one of her emergency seeds to leave

 

me a trail. The geranium’s purple flowers all faced a smaller tunnel leading off to the left. “Clever girl,” I said, choosing that tunnel.

A clattering sound alerted me to the approaching myrmeke.

I turned and raised my bow. Freed from the enchantment of my voice, the insect charged, its mouth foaming with acid. I drew and fired. The arrow embedded itself up to the fletching in the ant’s forehead.

 

The creature dropped, its back legs twitching in death throes. I tried to retrieve my arrow, but the shaft snapped in my hand, the broken end covered in steaming corrosive goo. So much for reusing ammunition.

I called, “MEG!”

The only answer was the clattering of more giant ants moving in my direction. I began to sing again. Now, though, I had higher hopes of finding Meg, which made it difficult to summon the proper amount of melancholy. The ants I encountered were no longer catatonic. They moved slowly and unsteadily, but they still attacked. I was forced to shoot one after another.

 

I passed a cave filled with glittering treasure, but I was not interested in shiny things at the moment. I kept moving.

 

At the next intersection, another geranium sprouted from the floor, all its flowers facing right. I turned that direction, calling Meg’s name again, then returning to my song.

 

As my spirits lifted, my song became less effective and the ants more aggressive. After a dozen kills, my quiver was growing dangerously light.

 

I had to reach deeper into my feelings of despair. I had to get the blues, good and proper. For the first time in four thousand years, I sang of my own faults.

 

I poured out my guilt about Daphne’s death. My boastfulness, envy, and desire had caused her destruction. When she ran from me, I should have let her go. Instead, I chased her relentlessly. I wanted her, and I intended to have her. Because of that, I had left Daphne no choice. To escape me, she sacrificed her life and turned into a tree, leaving my heart scarred forever….But it was my fault. I apologized in song. I begged Daphne’s forgiveness.

 

I sang of Hyacinthus, the most handsome of men. The West Wind Zephyros had also loved him, but I refused to share even a moment of Hyacinthus’s time. In my jealousy, I threatened Zephyros. I dared him, dared him to interfere.

 

I sang of the day Hyacinthus and I played discus in the fields, and how the West Wind blew my disc off course—right into the side of Hyacinthus’s head.

 

To keep Hyacinthus in the sunlight where he belonged, I created hyacinth flowers from his blood. I held Zephyros accountable, but my own petty greed had caused Hyacinthus’s death. I poured out my sorrow. I took all the blame.

 

I sang of my failures, my eternal heartbreak and loneliness. I was the worst of the gods, the most guilt-ridden and unfocused. I couldn’t commit myself to one lover. I couldn’t even choose what to be the god of. I kept shifting from one skill to another—distracted and dissatisfied.

 

My golden life was a sham. My coolness was pretense. My heart was a lump of petrified wood. All around me, myrmekes collapsed. The nest itself trembled with grief.

I found a third geranium, then a fourth.

 

Finally, pausing between verses, I heard a small voice up ahead: the sound of a girl crying. “Meg!” I gave up on my song and ran.

 

She lay in the middle of a cavernous food larder, just as I had imagined. Around her were stacked the carcasses of animals—cows, deer, horses—all sheathed in hardened goop and slowly decaying. The smell hit my nasal passages like an avalanche.

 

Meg was also enveloped, but she was fighting back with the power of geraniums. Patches of leaves sprouted from the thinnest parts of her cocoon. A frilly collar of flowers kept the goo away from her face. She had even managed to free one of her arms, thanks to an explosion of pink geraniums at her left armpit.

 

Her eyes were puffy from crying. I assumed she was frightened, possibly in pain, but when I knelt next to her, her first words were, “I’m so sorry.”

 

I brushed a tear from the tip of her nose. “Why, dear Meg? You did nothing wrong. I failed you.”

 

A sob caught in her throat. “You don’t understand. That song you were singing. Oh, gods…Apollo, if I’d known—”

 

“Hush, now.” My throat was so raw I could barely talk. The song had almost destroyed my voice. “You’re just reacting to the grief in the music. Let’s get you free.”

 

I was considering how to do that when Meg’s eyes widened. She made a whimpering sound.

 

The hairs on the nape of my neck came to attention. “There are ants behind me, aren’t there?” I asked. Meg nodded.

I turned as four of them entered the cavern. I reached for my quiver. I had one arrow left.

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The Hidden Oracle chapter 25

I’m on a roll now

Boiling, burning, throwing up

Lions? Hey, why not?

 

I STUMBLED THROUGH the glade, shouting Meg’s name. I knew it was pointless, but yelling felt good. I looked for signs of broken branches or trampled ground. Surely two tank-size ants would leave a trail I could follow. But I was not Artemis; I did not have my sister’s skill with tracking. I had no idea which direction they’d taken my friend.

 

I retrieved Meg’s swords from the mud. Instantly, they changed into gold rings—so small, so easily lost, like a mortal life. I may have cried. I tried to break my ridiculous combat ukulele, but the Celestial bronze instrument defied my attempts. Finally, I yanked off the A string, threaded it through Meg’s rings, and tied them around my neck.

“Meg, I will find you,” I muttered.

 

Her abduction was my fault. I was sure of this. By playing music and saving myself, I had broken my oath on the River Styx. Instead of punishing me directly, Zeus or the Fates or all the gods together had visited their wrath upon Meg McCaffrey.

 

How could I have been so foolish? Whenever I angered the other gods, those closest to me were struck down. I’d lost Daphne because of one careless comment to Eros. I’d lost the beautiful Hyacinthus because of a quarrel with Zephyros. Now my broken oath would cost Meg her life.

No, I told myself. I won’t allow it.

 

I was so nauseous, I could barely walk. Someone seemed to be inflating a balloon inside my brain. Yet I managed to stumble to the rim of Pete’s geyser.

“Pete!” I shouted. “Show yourself, you cowardly telemarketer!”

Water shot skyward with a sound like the blast of an organ’s lowest pipe. In the swirling steam, the palikos appeared, his mud-gray face hardening with anger.

 

“You call me a TELEMARKETER?” he demanded. “We run a full-service PR firm!” I doubled over and vomited in his crater, which I thought an appropriate response. “Stop that!” Pete complained.

 

“I need to find Meg.” I wiped my mouth with a shaky hand. “What would the myrmekes do with her?” “I don’t know!”

“Tell me or I will not complete your customer service survey.”

Pete gasped. “That’s terrible! Your feedback is important!” He floated down to my side. “Oh, dear… your head doesn’t look good. You’ve got a big gash on your scalp, and there’s blood. That must be why

 

you’re not thinking clearly.”

 

“I don’t care!” I yelled, which only made the pounding in my head worse. “Where is the myrmekes’ nest?”

 

Pete wrung his steamy hands. “Well, that’s what we were talking about earlier. That’s where Paulie went. The nest is the only entrance.”

“To what?”

“To the Grove of Dodona.”

 

My stomach solidified into a pack of ice, which was unfair, because I needed one for my head. “The ant nest…is the way to the grove?”

 

“Look, you need medical attention. I told Paulie we should have a first-aid station for visitors.” He fished around in his nonexistent pockets. “Let me just mark the location of the Apollo cabin—”

“If you pull out a brochure,” I warned, “I will make you eat it. Now, explain how the nest leads to the grove.”

 

Pete’s face turned yellow, or perhaps that was just my vision getting worse. “Paulie didn’t tell me everything. There’s this thicket of woods that’s grown so dense, nobody can get in. I mean, even from above, the branches are like…” He laced his muddy fingers, then caused them to liquefy and melt into one another, which made his point quite well.

 

“Anyway”—he pulled his hands apart—“the grove is in there. It could have been slumbering for centuries. Nobody on the board of directors even knew about it. Then, all of a sudden, the trees started whispering. Paulie figured those darned ants must have burrowed into the grove from underneath, and that’s what woke it up.”

 

I tried to make sense of that. It was difficult with a swollen brain. “Which way is the nest?” “North of here,” Pete said. “Half a mile. But, man, you are in no shape—”

“I must! Meg needs me!”

Pete grabbed my arm. His grip was like a warm wet tourniquet. “She’s got time. If they carried her off in one piece, that means she’s not dead yet.”

“She will be soon enough!”

“Nah. Before Paulie…before he disappeared, he went into that nest a few times looking for the tunnel to the grove. He told me those myrmekes like to goop up their victims and let them, um, ripen until they’re soft enough for the hatchlings to eat.”

 

I made an un-godlike squeak. If there had been anything left in my stomach, I would have lost it. “How long does she have?”

“Twenty-four hours, give or take. Then she’ll start to…um, soften.”

It was difficult to imagine Meg McCaffrey softening under any circumstances, but I pictured her alone and scared, encased in insect goop, tucked in some larder of carcasses in the ants’ nest. For a girl who hated bugs—Oh, Demeter had been right to hate me and keep her children away from me. I was a terrible god!

 

“Go get some help,” Pete urged. “The Apollo cabin can heal that head wound. You’re not doing your friend any favors by charging after her and getting yourself killed.”

“Why do you care what happens to us?”

The geyser god looked offended. “Visitor satisfaction is always our top priority! Besides, if you find Paulie while you’re in there…”

 

I tried to stay angry at the palikos, but the loneliness and worry on his face mirrored my own feelings. “Did Paulie explain how to navigate the ants’ nest?”

 

Pete shook his head. “Like I said, he didn’t want me to follow him. The myrmekes are dangerous enough. And if those other guys are still wandering around—”

“Other guys?”

 

Pete frowned. “Didn’t I mention that? Yeah. Paulie saw three humans, heavily armed. They were looking for the grove too.”

 

My left leg started thumping nervously, as if it missed its three-legged race partner. “How did Paulie know what they were looking for?”

 

“He heard them talking in Latin.” “Latin? Were they campers?”

 

Pete spread his hands. “I—I don’t think so. Paulie described them like they were adults. He said one of them was the leader. The other two addressed him as imperator.”

 

The entire planet seemed to tilt. “Imperator.” “Yeah, you know, like in Rome—”

 

“Yes, I know.” Suddenly, too many things made sense. Pieces of the puzzle flew together, forming one huge picture that smacked me in the face. The Beast…Triumvirate Holdings…adult demigods completely off the radar.

 

It was all I could do to avoid pitching forward into the geyser. Meg needed me more than ever. But I would have to do this right. I would have to be careful—even more careful than when I gave the fiery horses of the sun their yearly vaccinations.

 

“Pete,” I said, “do you still oversee sacred oaths?” “Well, yes, but—”

“Then hear my solemn oath!”

“Uh, the thing is, you’ve got this aura around you like you just broke a sacred oath, maybe one you swore on the River Styx? And if you break another oath with me—”

 

“I swear that I will save Meg McCaffrey. I will use every means at my disposal to bring her safely from the ants’ lair, and this oath supersedes any previous oath I have made. This I swear upon your sacred and extremely hot waters!”

 

Pete winced. “Well, okay. It’s done now. But keep in mind that if you don’t keep that oath, if Meg dies, even if it’s not your fault…you’ll face the consequences.”

“I am already cursed for breaking my earlier oath! What does it matter?”

“Yeah, but see, those River Styx oaths can take years to destroy you. They’re like cancer. My oaths…” Pete shrugged. “If you break it, there’s nothing I can do to stop your punishment. Wherever you are, a geyser will instantly blast through the ground at your feet and boil you alive.”

“Ah…” I tried to stop my knees from knocking. “Yes, of course I knew that. I stand by my oath.” “You’ve got no choice now.”

 

“Right. I think I’ll—I’ll go get healed.” I staggered off.

 

“Camp is the other direction,” Pete said. I changed course.

 

“Remember to complete our survey online!” Pete called after me. “Just curious, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your overall satisfaction with the Woods at Camp Half-Blood?”

I didn’t reply. As I stumbled into the darkness, I was too busy contemplating, on a scale of one to ten, the pain I might have to endure in the near future.

 

 

I didn’t have the strength to make it back to camp. The farther I walked, the clearer that became. My joints were pudding. I felt like a marionette, and as much as I’d enjoyed controlling mortals from above in the past, I did not relish being on the other end of the strings.

 

My defenses were at level zero. The smallest hellhound or dragon could have easily made a meal of the great Apollo. If an irritated badger had taken issue with me, I would have been doomed.

 

I leaned against a tree to catch my breath. The tree seemed to push me away, whispering in a voice I remembered so well: Keep moving, Apollo. You can’t rest here.

“I loved you,” I muttered.

Part of me knew I was delirious—imagining things only because of my concussion—but I swore I could see the face of my beloved Daphne rising from each tree trunk I passed, her features floating under the bark like a mirage of wood—her slightly crooked nose, her offset green eyes, those lips I had never kissed but never stopped dreaming of.

You loved every pretty girl, she scolded. And every pretty boy, for that matter.

“Not like you,” I cried. “You were my first true love. Oh, Daphne!”

Wear my crown, she said. And repent.

 

I remembered chasing her—her lilac scent on the breeze, her lithe form flitting through the dappled light of the forest. I pursued her for what seemed like years. Perhaps it was.

For centuries afterward, I blamed Eros.

In a moment of recklessness, I had ridiculed Eros’s archery skills. Out of spite, he struck me with a golden arrow. He bent all my love toward the beautiful Daphne, but that was not the worst of it. He also struck Daphne’s heart with a lead arrow, leeching all possible affection she might have had for me.

 

What people do not understand: Eros’s arrows can’t summon emotion from nothing. They can only cultivate potential that is already there. Daphne and I could have been a perfect pair. She was my true love. She could have loved me back. Yet thanks to Eros, my love-o-meter was cranked to one hundred percent, while Daphne’s feelings turned to pure hate (which is, of course, only the flip side of love).

 

Nothing is more tragic than loving someone to the depths of your soul and knowing they cannot and will not ever love you back.

 

The stories say I chased her on a whim, that she was just another pretty dress. The stories are wrong. When she begged Gaea to turn her into a laurel tree in order to escape me, part of my heart hardened into bark as well. I invented the laurel wreath to commemorate my failure—to punish myself for the fate of my greatest love. Every time some hero wins the laurels, I am reminded of the girl I can never win.

 

After Daphne, I swore I would never marry. Sometimes I claimed that was because I couldn’t decide between the Nine Muses. A convenient story. The Nine Muses were my constant companions, all of them beautiful in their own way. But they never possessed my heart like Daphne did. Only one other person ever affected me so deeply—the perfect Hyacinthus—and he, too, was taken from me.

 

All these thoughts rambled through my bruised brain. I staggered from tree to tree, leaning against them, grabbing their lowest branches like handrails.

You cannot die here, Daphne whispered. You have work to do. You made an oath.

Yes, my oath. Meg needed me. I had to… I fell face forward in the icy mulch. How long I lay there, I’m not sure.

A warm snout breathed in my ear. A rough tongue lapped my face. I thought I was dead and Cerberus had found me at the gates of the Underworld.

 

Then the beast pushed me over onto my back. Dark tree branches laced the sky. I was still in the forest. The golden visage of a lion appeared above me, his amber eyes beautiful and deadly. He licked my face, perhaps trying to decide if I would make a good supper.

“Ptfh.” I spit mane fur out of my mouth.

 

“Wake up,” said a woman’s voice, somewhere to my right. It wasn’t Daphne, but it was vaguely familiar.

 

I managed to raise my head. Nearby, a second lion sat at the feet of a woman with tinted glasses and a silver-and-gold tiara in her braided hair. Her batik dress swirled with images of fern fronds. Her arms and hands were covered in henna tattoos. She looked different than she had in my dream, but I recognized

 

her.

 

“Rhea,” I croaked.

She inclined her head. “Peace, Apollo. I don’t want to bum you out, but we need to talk.”

 

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