Nothing like his dad
I DID NOT KNOW I could move so fast. Not as Lester Papadopoulos, anyway.
I bounded across the lake until I reached Meg’s side. I tried desperately to shoo away the bees, but the wisps of darkness swarmed her, flying into her mouth, nose, and ears—even into her tear ducts. As a god of medicine, I would have found that fascinating if I hadn’t been so repulsed.
“Trophonius, stop it!” I pleaded.
“This is not my doing,” said the spirit. “Your friend opened her mind to the Dark Oracle. She asked questions. Now she is receiving the answers.”
“She asked no questions!”
“Oh, but she did. Mostly about you, Father. What will happen to you? Where must you go? How can she help you? These worries are foremost in her mind. Such misplaced loyalty…”
Meg began to thrash. I turned her onto her side, as one should do for someone after having a seizure. I wracked my brain. What else? Remove sharp objects from her environment….All the snakes were gone, good. Not much I could do about the bees. Her skin was cold, but I had nothing warm and dry to cover her with. Her usual scent—that faint, inexplicable smell of apples—had turned dank as mildew. The rhinestones in her glasses were completely dark, the lenses white with condensation.
“Meg,” I said. “Stay with me. Concentrate on my voice.”
She muttered incoherently. With a twinge of panic, I realized that if she gave me a direct order in her delirious state, even something as simple as Leave me alone or Go away, I would be compelled to obey. I had to find a way to anchor her mind, to shield her from the worst of the dark visions. That was difficult when my own mind was still a little fuzzy and not completely trustworthy.
I muttered some healing chants—old curative tunes I hadn’t used in centuries. Before antibiotics, before aspirin, before even sterile bandages, we had songs. I was the god of both music and healing for good reason. One should never underestimate the healing power of music.
Meg’s breathing steadied, but the shadowy swarm still enveloped her, attracted to her fears and doubts like…well, like bees to pollen.
“Ahem,” Trophonius said. “So about this favor you promised—”
“Shut up!” I snapped.
In her fever, Meg murmured, “Shut up.”
I chose to take this as an echo, not an order, aimed at Trophonius rather than me. Thankfully, my vocal cords agreed.
I sang to Meg about her mother, Demeter—the goddess who could heal the entire earth after drought, fire, or flood. I sang of Demeter’s mercy and kindness—the way she had made the prince Triptolemus into a god because of his good deeds; the way she had nursed the baby boy Demophon for three nights, attempting to make him immortal; the way she had blessed the cereal makers of modern times, flooding the world with a bounty of Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, and Count Chocula. Truly, she was a goddess of infinite benevolence.
“You know she loves you,” I promised, cradling Meg’s head in my lap. “She loves all her children. Look at how much she cherished Persephone even though that girl…Well, she makes your table manners look positively refined! Er, no offense.”
I realized I wasn’t even singing anymore. I was rambling, trying to drive off Meg’s fears with a friendly voice.
“Once,” I continued, “Demeter married this minor harvest god, Karmanor? You’ve probably never heard of him. No one had. He was this local deity in Crete. Rude, backward, poorly dressed. But, oh, they loved each other. They had this son…ugliest boy you ever saw. Had no redeeming qualities. He looked like a pig. Everyone said so. He even had a horrible name: Eubouleus. Sounds like Ebola, I know. But Demeter turned everyone’s criticisms around. She made Eubouleus the god of swineherds! I only say this because…Well, you never know, Meg. Demeter has plans for you, I’m sure. You can’t die on me, you see. You have too much to look forward to. Demeter might make you the minor goddess of cute little piglets!”
I couldn’t tell if she was hearing me. Her eyes shifted under closed lids as if she’d entered REM sleep. She wasn’t twitching and thrashing quite as much. Or was that my imagination? I was shaking from cold and fear so much myself, it was hard to be sure.
Trophonius made a sound like a steam valve opening. “She’s just fallen into a deeper trance. That’s not necessarily a good sign. She could still die.”
I kept my back to him. “Meg, don’t listen to Trophonius. He’s all about fear and pain. He’s just trying to make us lose hope.”
“Hope,” said the spirit. “Interesting word. I had hope once—that my father might act like a father. I got over it after a few centuries of being dead.”
“Don’t blame me for you robbing the king’s treasury!” I snarled. “You are here because you messed up.”
“I prayed to you!”
“Well, perhaps you didn’t pray for the right thing at the right time!” I yelled. “Pray for wisdom before you do something stupid! Don’t pray for me to bail you out after you follow your worst instincts!”
The bees swirled around me and buzzed angrily, but they did me no harm. I refused to offer them any fear to feed on. All that mattered now was staying positive, staying anchored for Meg’s sake.
“I’m here.” I brushed the wet hair from her forehead. “You are not alone.”
She whimpered in her trance. “The rose died.”
I felt as if a water moccasin had wriggled into my chest and was biting my heart, one artery at a time. “Meg, a flower is only part of the plant. Flowers grow back. You have deep roots. You have strong stems. You have…Your face is green.” I turned to Trophonius in alarm. “Why is her face green?”
“Interesting.” He sounded anything but interested. “Perhaps she’s dying.”
He tilted his head as if listening to something in the distance. “Ah. They’re here, waiting for you.”
“The emperor’s servants. Blemmyae.” Trophonius gestured to the far side of the lake. “An underwater tunnel just there…it leads into the rest of the cavern system, the part known to mortals. The blemmyae have learned better than to come into this chamber, but they’re waiting for you on the other end. That’s the only way you can escape.”
“Then we will.”
“Doubtful,” said Trophonius. “Even if your young friend survives, the blemmyae are preparing explosives.”
“Oh, Commodus probably told them to use the explosives only as a last resort. He likes having me as his personal fortune-teller. He sends his men in here from time to time, pulls them out half-dead and insane, gets free glimpses of the future. What does he care? But he’d rather destroy this Oracle than allow you to escape alive.”
I was too dumbfounded to respond.
Trophonius let loose another harsh peal of laughter. “Don’t look so down, Apollo. On the bright side, it won’t matter if Meg dies here, because she’s going to die anyway! Look, she’s frothing at the mouth now. This is always the most interesting part.”
Meg was indeed gurgling white foam. In my expert medical opinion, that was rarely a good sign.