- The Hidden Oracle
“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.