- The Hidden Oracle
“What’s going on?” Austin asked. “Also, where is my saxophone?”
Sensible questions. I wished I had sensible answers. All I knew was that Meg McCaffrey was still wandering in the grove, and I did not like the fact that the trees had gone silent.
I stared at my weak mortal arms. I wondered why I’d experienced a sudden surge of divine strength when facing the Germani. Had my emotions triggered it? Was it the first sign of my godly vigor returning for good? Or perhaps Zeus was just messing with me again—giving me a taste of my old power before yanking it away once more. Remember this, kid? WELL, YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!
I wished I could summon that strength again, but I would have to make do.
I handed Austin the broken spear. “Free the others. I’ll be back.”
Austin stared at me incredulously. “You’re going in there? Is it safe?”
“I doubt it,” I said.
Then I ran toward the Oracle.
Parting is sorrow
Nothing about it is sweet
Don’t step on my face
THE TREES WERE using their inside voices.
As I stepped through the gateway, I realized they were still talking in conversational tones, babbling nonsensically like sleepwalkers at a cocktail party.
I scanned the grove. No sign of Meg. I called her name. The trees responded by raising their voices, driving me cross-eyed with dizziness.
I steadied myself on the nearest oak.
“Watch it, man,” the tree said.
I lurched forward, the trees trading bits of verse as if playing a game of rhymes:
Caves of blue.
Strike the hue.
Serpents and roaches.
None of it made sense, but each line carried the weight of prophecy. I felt as if dozens of important statements, each vital to my survival, were being blended together, loaded in a shotgun, and fired at my face.
(Oh, that’s a rather good image. I’ll have to use it in a haiku.)
“Meg!” I called again.
Still no reply. The grove did not seem so large. How could she not hear me? How could I not see her?
I slogged along, humming a perfect A 440 hertz tone to keep myself focused. When I reached the second ring of trees, the oaks became more conversational.
“Hey, buddy, got a quarter?” one asked.
Another tried to tell me a joke about a penguin and a nun walking into a Shake Shack.
A third oak was giving its neighbor an infomercial sales pitch about a food processor. “And you won’t believe what it does with pasta!”
“Wow!” said the other tree. “It makes pasta, too?”
“Fresh linguine in minutes!” the sales oak enthused.
I did not understand why an oak tree would want linguine, but I kept moving. I was afraid that if I listened too long, I would order the food processor for three easy installments of $39.99, and my sanity would be lost forever.
Finally, I reached the center of the grove. On the far side of the largest oak tree, Meg stood with her back to the trunk, her eyes closed tight. The wind chimes were still in her hand, but they hung forgotten at her side. The brass cylinders clanked, muted against her dress.
At her feet, Peaches rocked back and forth, giggling. “Apples? Peaches! Mangoes? Peaches!”
“Meg.” I touched her shoulder.
She flinched. She focused on me as if I were a clever optical illusion. Her eyes simmered with fear. “It’s too much,” she said. “Too much.”
The voices had her in their grip. It was bad enough for me to endure—like a hundred radio stations playing at once, forcibly splitting my brain into different channels. But I was used to prophecies. Meg, on the other hand, was a daughter of Demeter. The trees liked her. They were all trying to share with her, to get her attention at the same time. Soon they would permanently fracture her mind.
“The wind chimes,” I said. “Hang them in the tree!”
I pointed to the lowest branch, well above our heads. Alone, neither of us could reach it, but if I gave Meg a boost…
Meg backed away, shaking her head. The voices of Dodona were so chaotic I wasn’t sure she had heard me. If she had, she either didn’t understand or didn’t trust me.
I had to tamp down my feelings of betrayal. Meg was Nero’s stepdaughter. She had been sent to lure me here, and our whole friendship was a lie. She had no right to mistrust me.
But I could not stay bitter. If I blamed her for the way Nero had twisted her emotions, I was no better than the Beast. Also, just because she had lied about being my friend did not mean I wasn’t hers. She was in danger. I was not going to leave her to the madness of the grove’s penguin jokes.