She fixed her eyes on me. Her lips quivered. I could tell she wanted a way out—some eloquent argument that would mollify her stepfather and allow her to follow her conscience. But I was no longer a silver-tongued god. I could not outtalk an orator like Nero. And I would not play the Beast’s blame game.

Instead, I took a page from Meg’s book, which was always short and to the point.

“He’s evil,” I said. “You’re good. You must make your own choice.”

I could tell that this was not the news Meg wanted. Her mouth tightened. She drew back her shoulder blades as if preparing for a measles shot—something painful but necessary. She placed her hand on the karpos’s curly scalp. “Peaches,” she said in a small but firm voice, “get the matchbox.”

The karpos sprang into action. Nero barely had time to blink before Peaches ripped the box from his hand and jumped back to Meg’s side.

The Germani readied their spears. Nero raised his hand for restraint. He gave Meg a look that might have been heartbreak—if he had possessed a heart.

“I see you weren’t ready for this assignment, my dear,” he said. “It’s my fault. Vince, Gary, detain Meg but don’t hurt her. When we get home…” He shrugged, his expression full of regret. “As for Apollo and the little fruit demon, they will have to burn.”

“No,” Meg croaked. Then, at full volume, she shouted, “NO!” And the Grove of Dodona shouted with her.

The blast was so powerful, it knocked Nero and his guards off their feet. Peaches screamed and beat his head against the dirt.

This time, however, I was more prepared. As the trees’ ear-splitting chorus reached its crescendo, I anchored my mind with the catchiest tune I could imagine. I hummed “Y.M.C.A.,” which I used to perform with the Village People in my construction worker costume until the Indian chief and I got in a fight over—Never mind. That’s not important.

“Meg!” I pulled the brass wind chimes from my pocket and tossed them to her. “Put these on the center tree! Y.M.C.A. Focus the grove’s energy! Y.M.C.A.”

I wasn’t sure she could hear me. She raised the chimes and watched as they swayed and clanked, turning the noise from the trees into snatches of coherent speech: Happiness approaches. The fall of the sun; the final verse. Would you like to hear our specials today?

Meg’s face went slack with surprise. She turned toward the grove and sprinted through the gateway. Peaches crawled after her, shaking his head.

I wanted to follow, but I couldn’t leave Nero and his guards alone with six hostages. Still humming “Y.M.C.A.,” I marched toward them.

The trees screamed louder than ever, but Nero rose to his knees. He pulled something from his coat pocket—a vial of liquid—and splashed it on the ground in front of him. I doubted that was a good thing, but I had more immediate concerns. Vince and Gary were getting up. Vince thrust his spear in my direction.

I was angry enough to be reckless. I grabbed the point of his weapon and yanked the spear up, smacking Vince under his chin. He fell, stunned, and I grabbed fistfuls of his hide armor.

He was easily twice my size. I didn’t care. I lifted him off his feet. My arms sizzled with power. I felt invincibly strong—the way a god should feel. I had no idea why my strength had returned, but I decided this was not the moment to question my good luck. I spun Vince like a discus, tossing him skyward with such force that he punched a Germanus-shaped hole in the tree canopy and sailed out of sight.

Kudos to the Imperial Guard for having stupid amounts of courage. Despite my show of force, Gary charged me. With one hand, I snapped his spear. With the other, I punched a fist straight through his shield and hit his chest with enough might to fell a rhinoceros.

He collapsed in a heap.

I faced Nero. I could already feel my strength ebbing. My muscles were returning to their pathetic mortal flabbiness. I just hoped I’d have enough time to rip off Nero’s head and stuff it down his mauve suit.

The emperor snarled. “You’re a fool, Apollo. You always focus on the wrong thing.” He glanced at his Rolex. “My wrecking crew will be here any minute. Once Camp Half-Blood is destroyed, I’ll make it my new front lawn! Meanwhile, you’ll be here…putting out fires.”

From his vest pocket, he produced a silver cigarette lighter. Typical of Nero to keep several forms of fire-making close at hand. I looked at the glistening streaks of oil he had splashed on the ground….Greek fire, of course.

“Don’t,” I said.

Nero grinned. “Good-bye, Apollo. Only eleven more Olympians to go.”