- The Hidden Oracle
On the left were three teenagers I didn’t know, though I assumed they must be Cecil, Ellis, and Miranda. On the right side was an emaciated man with gray skin and white hair—no doubt the geyser god Paulie. Next to him hung my children…Austin and Kayla.
I shook so violently, the bones around my feet clattered. I recognized the smell coming from the prisoners’ wrappings—sulfur, oil, powdered lime, and liquid Greek fire, the most dangerous substance ever created. Rage and disgust fought in my throat, vying for the right to make me throw up.
“Oh, monstrous,” I said. “We need to free them immediately.”
“Wh-what’s wrong with them?” Meg stammered.
I dared not put it into words. I had seen this form of execution once before, at the hands of the Beast, and I never wished to see it again.
I ran to Austin’s stake. With all my strength I tried to push it over, but it wouldn’t budge. The base was sunk too deep in the earth. I tore at the cloth bindings but only managed to coat my hands in sulfurous resin. The wadding was stickier and harder than myrmekes’ goo.
“Meg, your swords!” I wasn’t sure they would do any good either, but I could think of nothing else to try.
Then from above us came a familiar snarl.
The branches rustled. Peaches the karpos dropped from the canopy, landing with a somersault at Meg’s feet. He looked like he’d been through quite an ordeal to get here. His arms were sliced up and dripping peach nectar. His legs were dotted with bruises. His diaper sagged dangerously.
“Thank the gods!” I said. That was not my usual reaction when I saw the grain spirit, but his teeth and claws might be just the things to free the demigods. “Meg, hurry! Order your friend to—”
“Apollo.” Her voice was heavy. She pointed to the tunnel from which we’d come.
Emerging from the ants’ nest were two of the largest humans I had ever seen. Each was seven feet tall and perhaps three hundred pounds of pure muscle stuffed into horsehide armor. Their blond hair glinted like silver floss. Jeweled rings glittered in their beards. Each man carried an oval shield and a spear, though I doubted they needed weapons to kill. They looked like they could crack open cannonballs with their bare hands.
I recognized them from their tattoos and the circular designs on their shields. Such warriors weren’t easy to forget.
“Germani.” Instinctively, I moved in front of Meg. The elite imperial bodyguards had been cold-blooded death reapers in ancient Rome. I doubted they’d gotten any sweeter over the centuries.
The two men glared at me. They had serpent tattoos curling around their necks, just like the ruffians who had jumped me in New York. The Germani parted, and their master climbed from the tunnel.
Nero hadn’t changed much in one thousand nine hundred and some-odd years. He appeared to be no more than thirty, but it was a hard thirty, his face haggard and his belly distended from too much partying. His mouth was fixed in a permanent sneer. His curly hair extended into a wraparound neck beard. His chin was so weak, I was tempted to create a GoFundMe campaign to buy him a better jaw.
He tried to compensate for his ugliness with an expensive Italian suit of purple wool, his gray shirt open to display gold chains. His shoes were hand-tooled leather, not the sort of thing to wear while stomping around in an ant pile. Then again, Nero had always had expensive, impractical tastes. That was perhaps the only thing I admired about him.
“Emperor Nero,” I said. “The Beast.”
He curled his lip. “Nero will do. It’s good to see you, my honored ancestor. I’m sorry I’ve been so lax about my offerings during the past few millennia, but”—he shrugged—“I haven’t needed you. I’ve done rather well on my own.”
My fists clenched. I wanted to strike down this pot-bellied emperor with a bolt of white-hot power, except that I had no bolts of white-hot power. I had no arrows. I had no singing voice left. Against Nero and his seven-foot-tall bodyguards, I had a Brazilian handkerchief, a packet of ambrosia, and some brass wind chimes.
“It’s me you want,” I said. “Cut these demigods down from their stakes. Let them leave with Meg. They’ve done nothing to you.”
Nero chuckled. “I’ll be happy to let them go once we’ve come to an agreement. As for Meg…” He smiled at her. “How are you, my dear?”
Meg said nothing. Her face was as hard and gray as a geyser god’s. At her feet, Peaches snarled and rustled his leafy wings.
One of Nero’s guards said something in his ear.