“You’ll be a good girl, won’t you?” He gripped Meg’s shoulder a little too tightly. “Your daddy had to go away. Perhaps if you’re good, you’ll see him again. Won’t that be nice?”
The younger version of Meg nodded. I sensed, somehow, that she was about five years old. I imagined her thoughts and emotions curling up inside her, forming a thick protective shell.
Another scene flickered into view. Just outside the New York Public Library in Midtown, a man’s corpse sprawled on the white marble steps. One hand was splayed on his gut, which was a gruesome battleground of red trenches—perhaps slashes from a knife, or the claws of a large predator.
Police milled around, taking notes, snapping photos, holding the crowd behind a line of yellow tape. They parted, however, to let two people in—Nero, in a different purple suit but the same ghastly beard and jewelry, and Meg, now maybe six, horrified, pale, reluctant. She saw the body and began to whimper. She tried to turn away, but Nero planted a heavy hand on her shoulder to keep her in place.
“I want you to see this.” His voice dripped with false sympathy. “I am so sorry, my dear. The Beast…” He sighed as if this tragic scene was unavoidable. “I need you to be more diligent in your studies, do you understand? Whatever the swords-master says, you must do. It would break my heart if something else happened, something even worse than this. Look. Remember.”
Tears pooled in Meg’s eyes. She edged forward. Clutched in her dead father’s other hand was the stem of a rose. The crushed petals were strewn across his stomach, almost invisible against the blood. She wailed, “Daddy! Help me!” The police paid her no attention. The crowd acted as if she didn’t exist. Only Nero was there for her.
At last she turned to him, buried her face in his suit vest, and sobbed uncontrollably.
Shadows flickered more rapidly across the cavern walls. Meg’s song began to reverberate, breaking into random waves of noise. The lake churned around me. On the small rock island, darkness gathered, swirling upward like a waterspout, forming the shape of a man.
“Meg, stop singing!” I yelled.
With one final sob, she crumpled to her knees, her face streaked with tears. She fell to her side, groaning, her voice like crumpling sandpaper. The rhinestones in her glasses still glowed, but with a faint bluish tint, as if all the warmth had been drained from them.
I wanted more than anything to rush to Meg’s side. The sips of Memory and Forgetfulness had mostly burned out of my system. I knew Meg McCaffrey. I wanted to comfort her. But I also knew that the danger to her had not passed.
I faced the island. The apparition was only vaguely humanoid, composed of shadows and fractals of light. Afterimages from Meg’s lyrics flashed and faded in his body. He radiated fear even more strongly than Thalia’s Aegis shield—waves of terror that threatened to rip my self-control from its moorings.
“Trophonius!” I yelled. “Leave her alone!”
His form came into clearer focus: his lustrous dark hair, his proud face. Around him swarmed a host of phantom bees, his sacred creatures, small smudges of darkness.
“Apollo.” His voice resonated deep and harsh, just as it had sounded when expelled from Georgina on the Throne of Memory. “I’ve waited a long time, Father.”
“Please, my son.” I clasped my hands. “Meg is not your petitioner. I am!”
Trophonius regarded young McCaffrey, now curled up and shivering on the stone ledge. “If she is not my petitioner, why did she summon me with her song of grief? She has many unanswered questions. I could answer them, for the price of her sanity.”
“No! She was—She was trying to protect me.” I choked on the words. “She is my friend. She did not drink from the springs. I did. I am the supplicant to your holy Oracle. Take me instead!”
Trophonius’s laughter was a horrible sound…worthy of a spirit who dwelled in the darkness with thousands of poisonous snakes.
“Take me instead,” he repeated. “The very prayer I made when my brother Agamethus was caught in a tunnel, his chest crushed, his life fading. Did you listen to me then, Father?”
My mouth turned dry. “Don’t punish the girl for what I did.”
Trophonius’s ghostly bees swarmed in a wider cloud, buzzing angrily past my face.
“Do you know how long I wandered the mortal world after killing my brother, Apollo?” asked the ghost. “After cutting off his head, my hands still covered in his blood, I staggered through the wilderness for weeks, months. I pleaded to the earth to swallow me up and end my misery. I got half my wish.”
He gestured around him. “I dwell in darkness now because I am your son. I see the future because I am your son. All my pain and madness…Why should I not share it with those who seek my help? Does your help ever come without a price?”
My legs gave out. I plunged to my knees, the frigid water up to my chin. “Please, Trophonius. I am mortal now. Take your price from me, not her!”
“The girl has already volunteered! She opened her deepest fears and regrets to me.”
“No! No, she didn’t drink of the two springs. Her mind is not prepared. She will die!”
Images flickered through Trophonius’s dark form like flashes of lightning: Meg encased in goo in the ants’ lair; Meg standing between me and Lityerses, his sword stopped cold by her crossed golden blades; Meg hugging me fiercely as we flew our griffin from the Indianapolis Zoo.
“She is precious to you,” said the Oracle. “Would you give your life in exchange for hers?”
I had trouble processing that question. Give up my life? At any point in my four thousand years of existence, my answer would’ve been an emphatic No! Are you crazy? One should never give up one’s life. One’s life is important! The whole point of my quests in the mortal world, finding and securing all these ancient Oracles, was to regain immortality so I wouldn’t have to ponder such awful questions!
And yet…I thought of Emmie and Josephine renouncing immortality for each other. I thought of Calypso giving up her home, her powers, and eternal life for a chance to roam the world, experience love, and possibly enjoy the wonders of high school in Indiana.
“Yes,” I found myself saying. “Yes, I would die to save Meg McCaffrey.”
Trophonius laughed—a wet, angry sound like the churning of vipers in water. “Very good! Then promise me that you’ll grant me a wish. Whatever I ask, you will do.”
“Y-your wish?” I wasn’t a god anymore. Trophonius knew that. Even if I could grant wishes, I seemed to recall a very recent conversation with the goddess Styx about the dangers of making oaths I couldn’t keep.
But what choice did I have?
“Yes,” I said. “I swear. Whatever you ask. Then we have an agreement? You will take me instead of the girl?”
“Oh, I didn’t promise anything in return!” The spirit turned as black as oil smoke. “I just wanted to exact that promise from you. The girl’s fate is already decided.”
He stretched out his arms, expelling millions of dark ghostly bees.
Meg screamed in terror as the swarm engulfed her.
Man, I hate my son
A real arrogant jerkwad