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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/19
“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.
I turned as four of them entered the cavern. I reached for my quiver. I had one arrow left.
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?”
“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.
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.
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