- The Hidden Oracle
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.