- The Hidden Oracle
“You’re my daughter,” Nero corrected. “And I care for you deeply. Which is why you need to move aside. Quickly.”
He set a match to the striking surface of the box. “As soon as I light these stakes, our human torches will send a wave of fire straight through that gateway. Nothing will be able to stop it. The entire forest will burn.”
“Please!” Meg cried.
“Come along, dearest.” Nero’s frown hardened. “Apollo is of no use to us anymore. You don’t want to wake the Beast, do you?”
He lit his match and stepped toward the nearest stake, where my son Austin was bound.
It takes a Village
People to protect your mind
OH, THIS PART IS DIFFICULT TO TELL.
I am a natural storyteller. I have an infallible instinct for drama. I want to relate what should have happened: how I leaped forward shouting, “Nooooo!” and spun like an acrobat, knocking aside the lit match, then twisted in a series of blazing-fast Shaolin moves, cracking Nero’s head and taking out his bodyguards before they could recover.
Ah, yes. That would have been perfect.
Alas, the truth constrains me.
Curse you, truth!
In fact, I spluttered something like, “Nuh-uh, dun-doot!” I may have waved my Brazilian handkerchief with the hope that its magic would destroy my enemies.
The real hero was Peaches. The karpos must have sensed Meg’s true feelings, or perhaps he just didn’t like the idea of burning forests. He hurtled through the air, screaming his war cry (you guessed it), “Peaches!” He landed on Nero’s arm, chomped the lit match from the emperor’s hand, then landed a few feet away, wiping his tongue and crying, “Hat! Hat!” (Which I assumed meant hot in the dialect of deciduous fruit.)
The scene might have been funny except that the Germani were now back on their feet, five demigods and a geyser spirit were still tied to highly flammable posts, and Nero still had a box of matches.
The emperor stared at his empty hand. “Meg…?” His voice was as cold as an icicle. “What is the meaning of this?”
“P-Peaches, come here!” Meg’s voice had turned brittle with fear.
The karpos bounded to her side. He hissed at me, Nero, and the Germani.
Meg took a shaky breath, clearly gathering her nerve. “Nero…Peaches is right. You—you can’t burn these people alive.”
Nero sighed. He looked at his bodyguards for moral support, but the Germani still appeared woozy. They were hitting the sides of their heads as if trying to clear water from their ears.
“Meg,” said the emperor, “I am trying so hard to keep the Beast at bay. Why won’t you help me? I know you are a good girl. I wouldn’t have allowed you to roam around Manhattan so much on your own, playing the street waif, if I didn’t know you could take care of yourself. But softness toward your enemies is not a virtue. You are my stepdaughter. Any of these demigods would kill you without hesitation given the chance.”
“Meg, that’s not true!” I said. “You’ve seen what Camp Half-Blood is like.”
She studied me uneasily. “Even…even if it was true…” She turned to Nero. “You told me never to lower myself to my enemies’ level.”
“No, indeed.” Nero’s tone had frayed like a weathered rope. “We are better. We are stronger. We will build a glorious new world. But these nonsense-spewing trees stand in our way, Meg. Like any invasive weeds, they must be burned. And the only way to do that is with a true conflagration—flames stoked by blood. Let us do this together, and not involve the Beast, shall we?”
Finally, in my mind, something clicked. I remembered how my father used to punish me centuries ago, when I was a young god learning the ways of Olympus. Zeus used to say, Don’t get on the wrong side of my lightning bolts, boy.
As if the lightning bolt had a mind of its own—as if Zeus had nothing to do with the punishments he meted out upon me.
Don’t blame me, his tone implied. It’s the lightning bolt that seared every molecule in your body. Many years later, when I killed the Cyclopes who made Zeus’s lightning, it was no rash decision. I’d always hated those lightning bolts. It was easier than hating my father.
Nero took the same tone when he referred to himself as the Beast. He spoke of his anger and cruelty as if they were forces outside his control. If he flew into a rage…well then, he would hold Meg responsible.
The realization sickened me. Meg had been trained to regard her kindly stepfather Nero and the terrifying Beast as two separate people. I understood now why she preferred to spend her time in the alleys of New York. I understood why she had such quick mood changes, going from cartwheels to full shutdown in a matter of seconds. She never knew what might unleash the Beast.