- The Hidden Oracle
“I don’t hear anything,” Meg complained.
“A sawing noise to the right,” I told her. “To the left, a bad smell.”
“I choose the bad smell.”
“Of course you do.”
Meg blew me one of her trademark raspberries, then hobbled to the left, pulling me along with her.
The bronze bands around my leg began to chafe. I could feel Meg’s pulse through her femoral artery, messing up my rhythm. Whenever I get nervous (which doesn’t happen often), I like to hum a song to calm myself—usually Ravel’s Boléro or the ancient Greek “Song of Seikilos.” But with Meg’s pulse throwing me off, the only tune I could conjure was the “Chicken Dance.” That was not soothing.
We edged forward. The smell of volcanic fumes intensified. My pulse lost its perfect rhythm. My heart knocked against my chest with every cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck of the “Chicken Dance.” I feared I knew where we were. I told myself it wasn’t possible. We couldn’t have walked halfway around the world. But this was the Labyrinth. Down here, distance was meaningless. The maze knew how to exploit its victims’ weaknesses. Worse: it had a vicious sense of humor.
“I see light!” Meg said.
She was right. The absolute darkness had changed to murky gray. Up ahead, the tunnel ended, joining with a narrow, lengthwise cavern like a volcanic vent. It looked as if a colossal claw had slashed across the corridor and left a wound in the earth. I had seen creatures with claws that big down in Tartarus. I did not fancy seeing them again.
“We should turn around,” I said.
“That’s stupid,” Meg said. “Don’t you see the golden glow? There’s an apple in there.”
All I saw were swirling plumes of ash and gas. “The glow could be lava,” I said. “Or radiation. Or eyes. Glowing eyes are never good.”
“It’s an apple,” Meg insisted. “I can smell apple.”
“Oh, now you develop keen senses?”
Meg forged onward, giving me little choice but to go with. For a small girl, she was quite good at throwing her weight around. At the end of the tunnel, we found ourselves on a narrow ledge. The cliff wall opposite was only ten feet away, but the crevasse seemed to plunge downward forever. Perhaps a hundred feet above us, the jagged vent opened into a bigger chamber.
A painfully large ice cube seemed to be working its way down my throat. I had never seen this place from below, but I knew exactly where we were. We stood at the omphalus—the navel of the ancient world.
“You’re shaking,” Meg said.
I tried to cover her mouth with my hand, but she promptly bit it.
“Don’t touch me,” she snarled.
“Please be quiet.”
“Because right above us—” My voice cracked. “Delphi. The chamber of the Oracle.”
Meg’s nose quivered like a rabbit’s. “That’s impossible.”
“No, it’s not,” I whispered. “And if this is Delphi, that means…”
From overhead came a hiss so loud, it sounded as if the entire ocean had hit a frying pan and evaporated into a massive steam cloud. The ledge shook. Pebbles rained down. Above, a monstrous body slid across the crevasse, completely covering the opening. The smell of molting snakeskin seared my nostrils.
“Python.” My voice was now an octave higher than Meg’s. “He is here.”
The Beast is calling
Tell him I’m not here. Let’s hide
Where? In garbage. Natch
HAD I EVER BEEN SO TERRIFIED?
Perhaps when Typhon raged across the earth, scattering the gods before him. Perhaps when Gaea unleashed her giants to tear down Olympus. Or perhaps when I accidentally saw Ares naked in the gymnasium. That had been enough to turn my hair white for a century.
But I had been a god all of those times. Now I was a weak, tiny mortal cowering in the darkness. I could only pray my old enemy would not sense my presence. For once in my long glorious life, I wanted to be invisible.
Oh, why had the Labyrinth brought me here?
As soon as I thought this, I chided myself: Of course it would bring me where I least wanted to be. Austin had been wrong about the maze. It was still evil, designed to kill. It was just a little subtler about its homicides now.
Meg seemed oblivious to our danger. Even with an immortal monster a hundred feet above us, she had the nerve to stay on task. She elbowed me and pointed to a tiny ledge on the opposite wall, where a golden apple glowed cheerfully.
Had Harley placed it there? I couldn’t imagine. More likely the boy had simply rolled golden apples down various corridors, trusting that they would find the most dangerous spots to roost. I was really starting to dislike that boy.