- The Hidden Oracle
I winced. I was now fully convinced of Nero’s insanity. Wikipedia was always getting stuff wrong about me.
He rolled his hand. “Yes, yes. You think I am crazy. I could explain my plans and prove otherwise, but I have a lot on my plate today. I need you and Meg to open those gates. They’ve resisted my best efforts, but together you two can do it. Apollo, you have an affinity with Oracles. Meg has a way with trees. Get to it. Please and thank you.”
“We would rather die,” I said. “Wouldn’t we, Meg?”
I glanced over. A silvery streak glistened on Meg’s cheek. At first I thought one of her rhinestones had melted. Then I realized she was crying.
Nero clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Oh, my. It seems we’ve had a slight miscommunication. You see, Apollo, Meg brought you here, just as I asked her to. Well done, my sweet.”
Meg wiped her face. “I—I didn’t mean…”
My heart compressed to the size of a pebble. “Meg, no. I can’t believe—”
I reached for her. Peaches snarled and inserted himself between us. I realized the karpos was not here to protect us from Nero. He was defending Meg from me.
“Meg?” I said. “This man killed your father! He’s a murderer!”
She stared at the ground. When she spoke, her voice was even more tortured than mine was when I sang in the anthill. “The Beast killed my father. This is Nero. He’s—he’s my stepfather.”
I could not fully grasp this before Nero spread his arms.
“That’s right, my darling,” he said. “And you’ve done a wonderful job. Come to Papa.”
I school McCaffrey
Yo, girl, your stepdad is wack
Why won’t she listen?
I HAD BEEN BETRAYED BEFORE.
The memories came flooding back to me in a painful tide. Once, my former girlfriend Cyrene took up with Ares just to get back at me. Another time, Artemis shot me in the groin because I was flirting with her Hunters. In 1928, Alexander Fleming failed to give me credit for inspiring his discovery of penicillin. I mean, ouch. That stung.
But I couldn’t remember ever being so wrong about someone as I had been about Meg. Well…at least not since Irving Berlin. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”? I remember telling him. You’ll never make it big with a corny song like that!
“Meg, we are friends.” My voice sounded petulant even to myself. “How could you do this to me?”
Meg looked down at her red sneakers—the primary-colored shoes of a traitor. “I tried to tell you, to warn you.”
“She has a good heart.” Nero smiled. “But, Apollo, you and Meg have been friends for just a few days—and only because I asked Meg to befriend you. I have been Meg’s stepfather, protector, and caretaker for years. She is a member of the Imperial Household.”
I stared at my beloved Dumpster waif. Yes, somehow over the past week she had become beloved to me. I could not imagine her as Imperial anything—definitely not as a part of Nero’s entourage.
“I risked my life for you,” I said in amazement. “And that actually means something, because I can die!”
Nero clapped politely. “We’re all impressed, Apollo. Now, if you’d open the gates. They’ve defied me for too long.”
I tried to glare at Meg, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt too hurt and vulnerable. We gods do not like feeling vulnerable. Besides, Meg wasn’t even looking at me.
In a daze, I turned to the oak tree gates. I saw now that their fused trunks were marred from Nero’s previous efforts—chain-saw scars, burn marks, bites from ax blades, even some bullet holes. All these had barely chipped the outer bark. The most damaged area was an inch-deep impression in the shape of a human hand, where the wood had bubbled and peeled away. I glanced at the unconscious face of Paulie the geyser god, strung up and bound with the five demigods.
“Nero, what have you done?”
“Oh, a number of things! We found a way into this antechamber weeks ago. The Labyrinth has a convenient opening in the myrmekes’ nest. But getting through these gates—”
“You forced the palikos to help you?” I had to restrain myself from throwing my wind chimes at the emperor. “You used a nature spirit to destroy nature? Meg, how can you tolerate this?”
Peaches growled. For once I had the feeling that the grain spirit might be in agreement with me. Meg’s expression was as closed up as the gates. She stared intently at the bones littering the field.