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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/20
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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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