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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/18
Rhea’s laugh reminded me of a piglet with asthma. “Apollo, Grandson, beautiful child…Has being a god ever stopped someone from being stupid?”
She had a point. Not about me personally, of course, but the stories I could tell you about the other Olympians…
“The emperors of Rome.” I tried to come to terms with the idea. “They can’t all be immortal.”
“No,” Rhea said. “Just the worst of them, the most notorious. They live in human memory, man. That’s what keeps them alive. Same as us, really. They’re tied to the course of Western civilization, even though that whole concept is imperialist Eurocentric propaganda, man. Like my guru would tell you—”
“Rhea”—I put my hands against my throbbing temples—“can we stick to one problem at a time?”
“Yeah, okay. I didn’t mean to blow your mind.”
“But how can they affect our lines of communication? How can they be so powerful?”
“They’ve had centuries, Apollo. Centuries. All that time, plotting and making war, building up their capitalist empire, waiting for this moment when you are mortal, when the Oracles are vulnerable for a hostile takeover. It’s just evil. They have no chill whatsoever.”
“I thought that was a more modern term.”
“No. Chill. Never mind. The Beast…he is the leader?”
“Afraid so. He’s as twisted as the others, but he’s the smartest and the most stable—in a sociopathic homicidal way. You know who he is—who he was, right?”
Unfortunately, I did. I remembered where I had seen his smirking ugly face. I could hear his nasal voice echoing through the arena, ordering the execution of hundreds while the crowds cheered. I wanted to ask Rhea who his two compatriots were in the Triumvirate, but I decided I could not bear the information at present. None of the options were good, and knowing their names might bring me more despair than I could handle.
“It’s true, then,” I said. “The other Oracles still exist. The emperors hold them all?”
“They’re working on it. Python has Delphi—that’s the biggest problem. But you won’t have the strength to take him head-on. You’ve got to pry their fingers off the minor Oracles first, loosen their power. To do that, you need a new source of prophecy for this camp—an Oracle that is older and independent.”
“Dodona,” I said. “Your whispering grove.”
“Right on,” Rhea said. “I thought the grove was gone forever. But then—I don’t know how—the oak trees regrew themselves in the heart of these woods. You have to find the grove and protect it.”
“I’m working on that.” I touched the sticky wound on the side of my face. “But my friend Meg—”
“Yeah. You had some setbacks. But there are always setbacks, Apollo. When Lizzy Stanton and I hosted the first women’s rights convention in Woodstock—”
“I think you mean Seneca Falls?”
Rhea frowned. “Wasn’t that in the ’60s?”
“The ’40s,” I said. “The 1840s, if memory serves.”
“So…Jimi Hendrix wasn’t there?”
Rhea fiddled with her peace symbol. “Then who set that guitar on fire? Ah, never mind. The point is, you have to persevere. Sometimes change takes centuries.”
“Except that I’m mortal now,” I said. “I don’t have centuries.”
“But you have willpower,” Rhea said. “You have mortal drive and urgency. Those are things the gods often lack.”
At her side, her lion roared.
“I’ve gotta split,” Rhea said. “If the imperators track me down—bad scene, man. I’ve been off the grid too long. I’m not going to get sucked into that patriarchal institutional oppression again. Just find Dodona. That’s your first trial.”
“And if the Beast finds the grove first?”
“Oh, he’s already found the gates, but he’ll never get through them without you and the girl.”
“I—I don’t understand.”
“That’s cool. Just breathe. Find your center. Enlightenment has to come from within.”
It was very much like a line I would’ve given my worshippers. I was tempted to choke Rhea with her macramé belt, but I doubted I would have the strength. Also, she had two lions. “But what do I do? How do I save Meg?”
“First, get healed. Rest up. Then…well, how you save Meg is up to you. The journey is greater than the destination, you know?”
She held out her hand. Draped on her fingers was a set of wind chimes—a collection of hollow brass tubes and medallions engraved with ancient Greek and Cretan symbols. “Hang these in the largest ancient oak. That will help you focus the voices of the Oracle. If you get a prophecy, groovy. It’ll only be the beginning, but without Dodona, nothing else will be possible. The emperors will suffocate our future and divide up the world. Only when you have defeated Python can you reclaim your rightful place on Olympus. My kid, Zeus…he’s got this whole ‘tough love’ disciplinarian hang-up, you dig? Taking back Delphi is the only way you’re going to get on his good side.”
“I—I was afraid you would say that.”
“There’s one other thing,” she warned. “The Beast is planning some kind of attack on your camp. I don’t know what it is, but it’s going to be big. Like, even worse than napalm. You have to warn your friends.”
The nearest lion nudged me. I wrapped my arms around his neck and allowed him to pull me to my feet. I managed to remain standing, but only because my legs locked up in complete fright. For the first time, I understood the trials that awaited me. I knew the enemies I must face. I would need more than wind chimes and enlightenment. I’d need a miracle. And as a god, I can tell you that those are never distributed lightly.
“Good luck, Apollo.” The Titan queen placed the wind chimes in my hands. “I’ve got to check my kiln before my pots crack. Keep on trucking, and save those trees!”
The woods dissolved. I found myself standing in the central green at Camp Half-Blood, face-to-face with Chiara Benvenuti, who jumped back in alarm. “Apollo?”
I smiled. “Hey, girl.” My eyes rolled up in my head and, for the second time that week, I charmingly passed out in front of her.
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—”