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Actions & Adventure
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Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/17
into the muddy cauldron.
Believe me, the only thing that smells worse than Hephaestus’s work shirts is a myrmeke boiling in its own shell.
Somewhere behind me, Meg screamed. I turned in time to see her second sword fly from her hand. She collapsed as one of the myrmekes caught her in its mandibles.
“NO!” I shrieked.
The ant did not snap her in half. It simply held her—limp and unconscious.
“Meg!” I yelled again. I strummed the ukulele desperately. “Sweet Caroline!”
But my voice was gone. Defeating one ant had taken all my energy. (I don’t think I have ever written a sadder sentence than that.) I tried to run to Meg’s aid, but I stumbled and fell. The world turned pale yellow. I hunched on all fours and vomited.
I have a concussion, I thought, but I had no idea what to do about it. It seemed like ages since I had been a god of healing.
I may have lay in the mud for minutes or hours while my brain slowly gyrated inside my skull. By the time I managed to stand, the two ants were gone.
There was no sign of Meg McCaffrey.
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 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—”
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.”
Gag me with a peace symbol
Not groovy, Mama
MY HEAD WOUND MUST have tasted like Wagyu beef.
The lion kept licking the side of my face, making my hair stickier and wetter. Strangely, this seemed to clear my thoughts. Perhaps lion saliva had curative properties. I guess I should have known that, being a god of healing, but you’ll have to excuse me if I haven’t done trial-and-error experiments with the drool of every single animal.
With difficulty, I sat up and faced the Titan queen.
Rhea leaned against the side of a VW safari van painted with swirling black frond designs like those on her dress. I seemed to recall that the black fern was one of Rhea’s symbols, but I couldn’t remember why. Among the gods, Rhea had always been something of a mystery. Even Zeus, who knew her best, did not often speak of her.
Her turret crown circled her brow like a glittering railroad track. When she looked down at me, her tinted glasses changed from orange to purple. A macramé belt cinched her waist, and on a chain around her neck hung her brass peace symbol.
She smiled. “Glad you’re awake. I was worried, man.”
I really wished people would stop calling me man. “Why are you…Where have you been all these centuries?”
“Upstate.” She scratched her lion’s ears. “After Woodstock, I stuck around, started a pottery studio.”
She tilted her head. “Was that last week or last millennium? I’ve lost track.”
“I—I believe you’re describing the 1960s. That was last century.”
“Oh, bummer.” Rhea sighed. “I get mixed up after so many years.”
“After I left Kronos…well, that man was so square, you could cut yourself on his corners, you know what I mean? He was the ultimate 1950s dad—wanted us to be Ozzie and Harriet or Lucy and Ricky or something.”
“He—he swallowed his children alive.”
“Yeah.” Rhea brushed her hair from her face. “That was some bad karma. Anyway, I left him. Back then divorce wasn’t cool. You just didn’t do it. But me, I burned my apodesmos and got liberated. I raised Zeus in a commune with a bunch of naiads and kouretes. Lots of wheat germ and nectar. The kid grew up with a strong Aquarian vibe.”
I was fairly sure Rhea was misremembering her centuries, but I thought it would be impolite to keep pointing that out.
“You remind me of Iris,” I said. “She went organic vegan several decades ago.”
Rhea made a face—just a ripple of disapproval before regaining her karmic balance. “Iris is a good soul. I dig her. But you know, these younger goddesses, they weren’t around to fight the revolution. They don’t get what it was like when your old man was eating your children and you couldn’t get a real job and the Titan chauvinists just wanted you to stay home and cook and clean and have more Olympian babies. And speaking of Iris…”
Rhea touched her forehead. “Wait, were we speaking of Iris? Or did I just have a flashback?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Oh, I remember now. She’s a messenger of the gods, right? Along with Hermes and that other groovy liberated chick…Joan of Arc?”
“Er, I’m not sure about that last one.”
“Well, anyway, the communication lines are down, man. Nothing works. Rainbow messages, flying scrolls, Hermes Express…it’s all going haywire.”
“We know this. But we don’t know why.”
“It’s them. They’re doing it.”
She glanced to either side. “The Man, man. Big Brother. The suits. The imperators.”
I had been hoping she would say something else: giants, Titans, ancient killing machines, aliens. I would’ve rather tangled with Tartarus or Ouranos or Primordial Chaos itself. I had hoped Pete the geyser misunderstood what his brother told him about the imperator in the ants’ nest.
Now that I had confirmation, I wanted to steal Rhea’s safari van and drive to some commune far, far upstate.
“Triumvirate Holdings,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rhea agreed. “That’s their new military-industrial complex. It’s bumming me out in a big way.”
The lion stopped licking my face, probably because my blood had turned bitter. “How is this possible? How have they come back?”
“They never went away,” Rhea said. “They did it to themselves, you know. Wanted to make themselves gods. That never works out well. Ever since the old days they’ve been hiding out, influencing history from behind the curtains. They’re stuck in a kind of twilight life. They can’t die; they can’t really live.”
“But how could we not know about this?” I demanded. “We are gods!”