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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/16
“A geyser,” Meg repeated. “Like Old Faithful?”
“This is excellent news. Perhaps we can get directions. Our lost demigods might have even found sanctuary there!”
“With the geysers,” Meg said.
“No, my ridiculous girl,” I said. “With the geyser gods. Assuming they’re in a good mood, this could be great.”
“And if they’re in a bad mood?”
“Then we’ll cheer them up before they can boil us. Follow me!”
Scale of one to ten
How would you rate your demise?
Thanks for your input
WAS I RECKLESS to rush toward such volatile nature gods?
Please. Second-guessing myself is not in my nature. It’s a trait I’ve never needed.
True, my memories about the palikoi were a little hazy. As I recalled, the geyser gods in ancient Sicily used to give refuge to runaway slaves, so they must be kindly spirits. Perhaps they would also give refuge to lost demigods, or at least notice when five of them wandered through their territory, muttering incoherently. Besides, I was Apollo! The palikoi would be honored to meet a major Olympian such as myself! The fact that geysers often blew their tops, spewing columns of scalding hot water hundreds of feet in the air, wasn’t going to stop me from making some new fans…I mean friends.
The clearing opened before us like an oven door. A wall of heat billowed through the trees and washed over my face. I could feel my pores opening to drink in the moisture, which would hopefully help my spotty complexion.
The scene before us had no business being in a Long Island winter. Glistening vines wreathed the tree branches. Tropical flowers bloomed from the forest floor. A red parrot sat on a banana tree heavy with green bunches.
In the midst of the glade stood two geysers—twin holes in the ground, ringed with a figure eight of gray mud pots. The craters bubbled and hissed, but they were not spewing at the moment. I decided to take that as a good omen.
Meg’s boots squished in the mud. “Is it safe?”
“Definitely not,” I said. “We’ll need an offering. Perhaps your packet of seeds?”
Meg punched my arm. “Those are magic. For life-and-death emergencies. What about your ukulele? You’re not going to play it anyway.”
“A man of honor never surrenders his ukulele.” I perked up. “But wait. You’ve given me an idea. I will offer the geyser gods a poem! I can still do that. It doesn’t count as music.”
Meg frowned. “Uh, I don’t know if—”
“Don’t be envious, Meg. I will make up a poem for you later. This will surely please the geyser gods!” I walked forward, spread my arms, and began to improvise:
“Oh, geyser, my geyser,
Let us spew then, you and I,
Upon this midnight dreary, while we ponder
Whose woods are these?
For we have not gone gentle into this good night,
But have wandered lonely as clouds.
We seek to know for whom the bell tolls,
So I hope, springs eternal,
That the time has come to talk of many things!”
I don’t wish to brag, but I thought it was rather good, even if I did recycle a few bits from my earlier works. Unlike my music and archery, my godly skills with poetry seemed to be completely intact.
I glanced at Meg, hoping to see shining admiration on her face. It was high time the girl started to appreciate me. Instead, her mouth hung open, aghast.
“What?” I demanded. “Did you fail poetry appreciation in school? That was first-rate stuff!”
Meg pointed toward the geysers. I realized she was not looking at me at all.
“Well,” said a raspy voice, “you got my attention.”
One of the palikoi hovered over his geyser. His lower half was nothing but steam. From the waist up, he was perhaps twice the size of a human, with muscular arms the color of caldera mud, chalk-white eyes, and hair like cappuccino foam, as if he had shampooed vigorously and left it sudsy. His massive chest was stuffed into a baby-blue polo shirt with a logo of trees embroidered on the chest pocket.
“O, Great Palikos!” I said. “We beseech you—”
“What was that?” the spirit interrupted. “That stuff you were saying?”
“Poetry!” I said. “For you!”
He tapped his mud-gray chin. “No. That wasn’t poetry.”
I couldn’t believe it. Did no one appreciate the beauty of language anymore? “My good spirit,” I said. “Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, you know.”
“I’m not talking about rhyming. I’m talking about getting your message across. We do a lot of market research, and that would not fly for our campaign. Now, the Oscar Meyer Weiner song—that is poetry. The ad is fifty years old and people are still singing it. Do you think you could give us some poetry like that?”
I glanced at Meg to be sure I was not imagining this conversation.
“Listen here,” I told the geyser god, “I’ve been the lord of poetry for four thousand years. I ought to know good poetry—”
The palikos waved his hands. “Let’s start over. I’ll run through our spiel, and maybe you can advise me. Hi, I’m Pete. Welcome to the Woods at Camp Half-Blood! Would you be willing to take a short customer satisfaction survey after this encounter? Your feedback is important.”
Pete fished around in his vaporous region where his pockets would be. He produced a glossy brochure and began to read. “The Woods are your one-stop destination for…Hmm, it says fun. I thought we changed that to exhilaration. See, you’ve got to choose your words with care. If Paulie were here…” Pete sighed. “Well, he’s better with the showmanship. Anyway, welcome to the Woods at Camp Half-Blood!”
“You already said that,” I noted.
“Oh, right.” Pete produced a red pen and began to edit.
“Hey.” Meg shouldered past me. She had been speechless with awe for about twelve seconds, which must’ve been a new record. “Mr. Steamy Mud, have you seen any lost demigods?”
“Mr. Steamy Mud!” Pete slapped his brochure. “That is effective branding! And great point about lost demigods. We can’t have our guests wandering around aimlessly. We should be handing out maps at the entrance to the woods. So many wonderful things to see in here, and no one even knows about them. I’ll talk to Paulie when he gets back.”
Meg took off her fogged-up glasses. “Who’s Paulie?”
Pete gestured at the second geyser. “My partner. Maybe we could add a map to this brochure if—”
“So have you seen any lost demigods?” I asked.
“What?” Pete tried to mark his brochure, but the steam had made it so soggy, his red pen went right through the paper. “Oh, no. Not recently. But we should have better signage. For instance, did you even know these geysers were here?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Well, there you go! Double geysers—the only ones on Long Island!—and no one even knows about us. No outreach. No word-of-mouth. This is why we convinced the board of directors to hire us!”
Meg and I looked at each other. I could tell that for once we were on the same wavelength: utter confusion.
“Sorry,” I said. “Are you telling me the forest has a board of directors?”
“Well, of course,” Pete said. “The dryads, the other nature spirits, the sentient monsters…I mean, somebody has to think about property values and services and public relations. It wasn’t easy getting the board to hire us for marketing, either. If we mess up this job…oh, man.”
Meg squished her shoes in the mud. “Can we go? I don’t understand what this guy’s talking about.”
“And that’s the problem!” Pete moaned. “How do we write clear ad copy that conveys the right image of the Woods? For instance, palikoi like Paulie and me used to be famous! Major tourist destinations! People would come to us to make binding oaths. Runaway slaves would seek us out for shelter. We’d get sacrifices, offerings, prayers…it was great. Now, nothing.”
I heaved a sigh. “I know how you feel.”
“Guys,” Meg said, “we’re looking for missing demigods.”
“Right,” I agreed. “O, Great…Pete, do you have any idea where our lost friends might have gone? Perhaps you know of some secret locations within the woods?”
Pete’s chalk-white eyes brightened. “Did you know the children of Hephaestus have a hidden workshop to the north called Bunker Nine?”
“I did, actually,” I said.
“Oh.” A puff of steam escaped Pete’s left nostril. “Well, did you know the Labyrinth has rebuilt itself? There is an entrance right here in the woods—”
“We know,” Meg said.
Pete looked crestfallen.
“But perhaps,” I said, “that’s because your marketing campaign is working.”
“Do you think so?” Pete’s foamy hair began to swirl. “Yes. Yes, that may be true! Did you happen to see our spotlights, too? Those were my idea.”
“Spotlights?” Meg asked.
Twin beams of red light blasted from the geysers and swept across the sky. Lit from beneath, Pete looked like the world’s scariest teller of ghost stories.
“Unfortunately, they attracted the wrong kind of attention.” Pete sighed. “Paulie doesn’t let me use them often. He suggested advertising on a blimp instead, or perhaps a giant inflatable King Kong—”
“That’s cool,” Meg interrupted. “But can you tell us anything about a secret grove with whispering trees?”
I had to admit, Meg was good at getting us back on topic. As a poet, I did not cultivate directness. But as an archer, I could appreciate the value of a straight shot.
“Oh.” Pete floated lower in his cloud of steam, the spotlight turning him the color of cherry soda. “I’m not supposed to talk about the grove.”
My once-godly ears tingled. I resisted the urge to scream, AHA! “Why can’t you talk about the grove, Pete?”
The spirit fiddled with his soggy brochure. “Paulie said it would scare away tourists. ‘Talk about the dragons,’ he told me. ‘Talk about the wolves and serpents and ancient killing machines. But don’t mention the grove.’”
“Ancient killing machines?” Meg asked.
“Yeah,” Pete said halfheartedly. “We’re marketing them as fun family entertainment. But the grove…Paulie said that was our worst problem. The neighborhood isn’t even zoned for an Oracle. Paulie went there to see if maybe we could relocate it, but—”
“He didn’t come back,” I guessed.
Pete nodded miserably. “How am I supposed to run the marketing campaign all by myself? Sure, I can use robo-calls for the phone surveys, but a lot of networking has to be done face-to-face, and Paulie was always better with that stuff.” Pete’s voice broke into a sad hiss. “I miss him.”
“Maybe we could find him,” Meg suggested, “and bring him back.”
Pete shook his head. “Paulie made me promise not to follow him and not to tell anybody else where the grove is. He’s pretty good at resisting those weird voices, but you guys wouldn’t stand a chance.”
I was tempted to agree. Finding ancient killing machines sounded much more reasonable. Then I pictured Kayla and Austin wandering through the ancient grove, slowly going mad. They needed me, which meant I needed their location.
“Sorry, Pete.” I gave him my most critical stare—the one I used to crush aspiring singers during Broadway auditions. “I’m just not buying it.”
Mud bubbled around Pete’s caldera. “Wh-what do you mean?”
“I don’t think this grove exists,” I said. “And if it does, I don’t think you know its location.”
Pete’s geyser rumbled. Steam swirled in his spotlight beam. “I—I do know! Of course it exists!”
“Oh, really? Then why aren’t there billboards about it all over the place? And a dedicated Web site? Why haven’t I seen a groveofdodona hashtag on social media?”
Pete glowered. “I suggested all that! Paulie shot me down!”
“So do some outreach!” I demanded. “Sell us on your product! Show us where this grove is!”
“I can’t. The only entrance…” He glanced over my shoulder and his face went slack. “Ah, spew.” His spotlights shut off.
I turned. Meg made a squelching sound even louder than her shoes in the mud.
It took a moment for my vision to adjust, but at the edge of the clearing stood three black ants the size of Sherman tanks.
“Pete,” I said, trying to remain calm, “when you said your spotlights attracted the wrong kind of attention—”
“I meant the myrmekes,” he said. “I hope this won’t affect your online review of the Woods at Camp Half-Blood.”
Breaking my promise
I blame Neil Diamond
MYRMEKES SHOULD BE high on your list of monsters not to fight.
They attack in groups. They spit acid. Their pincers can snap through Celestial bronze.
Also, they are ugly.
The three soldier ants advanced, their ten-foot-long antennae waving and bobbing in a mesmerizing way, trying to distract me from the true danger of their mandibles.
Their beaked heads reminded me of chickens—chickens with dark flat eyes and black armored faces. Each of their six legs would have made a fine construction winch. Their oversize abdomens throbbed and pulsed like noses sniffing for food.
I silently cursed Zeus for inventing ants. The way I heard it, he got upset with some greedy man who was always stealing from his neighbors’ crops, so Zeus turned him into the first ant—a species that does nothing but scavenge, steal, and breed. Ares liked to joke that if Zeus wanted such a species, he could’ve just left humans the way they were. I used to laugh. Now that I am one of you, I no longer find it funny.
The ants stepped toward us, their antennae twitching. I imagined their train of thought was something like Shiny? Tasty? Defenseless?
“No sudden movements,” I told Meg, who did not seem inclined to move at all. In fact, she looked petrified.
“Oh, Pete?” I called. “How do you deal with myrmekes invading your territory?”
“By hiding,” he said, and disappeared into the geyser.
“Not helpful,” I grumbled.
“Can we dive in?” Meg asked.
“Only if you fancy boiling to death in a pit of scalding water.”
The tank bugs clacked their mandibles and edged closer.
“I have an idea.” I unslung my ukulele.
“I thought you swore not to play,” Meg said.
“I did. But if I throw this shiny object to one side, the ants might—”
I was about to say the ants might follow it and leave us alone.
I neglected to consider that, in my hands, the ukulele made me look shinier and tastier. Before I could throw the instrument, the soldier ants surged toward us. I stumbled back, only remembering the geyser behind me when my shoulder blades began to blister, filling the air with Apollo-scented steam.
“Hey, bugs!” Meg’s scimitars flashed in her hands, making her the new shiniest thing in the clearing.
Can we take a moment to appreciate that Meg did this on purpose? Terrified of insects, she could have fled and left me to be devoured. Instead, she chose to risk her life by distracting three tank-size ants. Throwing garbage at street thugs was one thing. But this…this was an entirely new level of foolishness. If I lived, I might have to nominate Meg McCaffrey for Best Sacrifice at the next Demi Awards.
Two of the ants charged at Meg. The third stayed on me, though he turned his head long enough for me to sprint to one side.
Meg ran between her opponents, her golden blades severing a leg from each. Their mandibles snapped at empty air. The soldier bugs wobbled on their five remaining legs, tried to turn, and bonked heads.
Meanwhile, the third ant charged me. In a panic, I threw my combat ukulele. It bounced off the ant’s forehead with a dissonant twang.
I tugged my sword free of its scabbard. I’ve always hated swords. Such inelegant weapons, and they require you to be in close combat. How unwise, when you can shoot your enemies with an arrow from across the world!
The ant spit acid, and I tried to swat away the goop.
Perhaps that wasn’t the brightest idea. I often got sword fighting and tennis confused. At least some of the acid splattered the ant’s eyes, which bought me a few seconds. I valiantly retreated, raising my sword only to find that the blade had been eaten away, leaving me nothing but a steaming hilt.
“Oh, Meg?” I called helplessly.
She was otherwise occupied. Her swords whirled in golden arcs of destruction, lopping off leg segments, slicing antennae. I had never seen a dimachaerus fight with such skill, and I had seen all the best gladiators in combat. Unfortunately, her blades only sparked off the ants’ thick main carapaces. Glancing blows and dismemberment did not faze them at all. As good as Meg was, the ants had more legs, more weight, more ferocity, and slightly more acid-spitting ability.
My own opponent snapped at me. I managed to avoid its mandibles, but its armored face bashed the side of my head. I staggered and fell. One ear canal seemed to fill with molten iron.
My vision clouded. Across the clearing, the other ants flanked Meg, using their acid to herd her toward the woods. She dove behind a tree and came up with only one of her blades. She tried to stab the closest ant but was driven back by acid cross fire. Her leggings were smoking, peppered with holes. Her face was tight with pain.
“Peaches,” I muttered to myself. “Where is that stupid diaper demon when we need him?”
The karpos did not appear. Perhaps the presence of the geyser gods or some other force in the woods kept him away. Perhaps the board of directors had a rule against pets.
The third ant loomed over me, its mandibles foaming with green saliva. Its breath smelled worse than Hephaestus’s work shirts.
My next decision I could blame on my head injury. I could tell you I wasn’t thinking clearly, but that isn’t true. I was desperate. I was terrified. I wanted to help Meg. Mostly I wanted to save myself. I saw no other option, so I dove for my ukulele.
I know. I promised on the River Styx not to play music until I was a god once more. But even such a dire oath can seem unimportant when a giant ant is about to melt your face off.
I grabbed the instrument, rolled onto my back, and belted out “Sweet Caroline.”
Even without my oath, I would only have done something like that in the most extreme emergency. When I sing that song, the chances of mutually assured destruction are too great. But I saw no other choice. I gave it my utmost effort, channeling all the saccharine schmaltz I could muster from the 1970s.
The giant ant shook its head. Its antennae quivered. I got to my feet as the monster crawled drunkenly toward me. I put my back to the geyser and launched into the chorus.
The Dah! Dah! Dah! did the trick. Blinded by disgust and rage, the ant charged. I rolled aside as the monster’s momentum carried it forward, straight