- The Hidden Oracle
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.”