The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle/10

this was. How did my children stand it? Why did they not keep a blazing altar, and decorate the walls with hammered gold reliefs celebrating my glory?

When I heard Will and the others coming back, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I could not face their questions or kindnesses, their attempts to make me feel at home when I clearly did not belong.

As they came in the door, they got quiet.

“Is he okay?” whispered Kayla.

Austin said, “Would you be, if you were him?”

A moment of silence.

“Try to get some sleep, guys,” Will advised.

“This is crazy weird,” Kayla said. “He looks so…human.”

“We’ll watch out for him,” Austin said. “We’re all he’s got now.”

I held back a sob. I couldn’t bear their concern. Not being able to reassure them, or even disagree with them, made me feel very small.

A blanket was draped over me.

Will said, “Sleep well, Apollo.”

Perhaps it was his persuasive voice, or the fact that I was more exhausted than I had been in centuries. Immediately, I drifted into unconsciousness.

Thank the remaining eleven Olympians, I had no dreams.

I woke in the morning feeling strangely refreshed. My chest no longer hurt. My nose no longer felt like a water balloon attached to my face. With the help of my offspring (cabin mates—I will call them cabin mates), I managed to master the arcane mysteries of the shower, the toilet, and the sink. The toothbrush was a shock. The last time I was mortal, there had been no such thing. And underarm deodorant—what a ghastly idea that I should need enchanted salve to keep my armpits from producing stench!

When I was done with my morning ablutions and dressed in clean clothes from the camp store—sneakers, jeans, an orange Camp Half-Blood T-shirt, and a comfy winter coat of flannel wool—I felt almost optimistic. Perhaps I could survive this human experience.

I perked up even more when I discovered bacon.

Oh, gods—bacon! I promised myself that once I achieved immortality again, I would assemble the Nine Muses and together we would create an ode, a hymnal to the power of bacon, which would move the heavens to tears and cause rapture across the universe.

Bacon is good.

Yes—that may be the title of the song: “Bacon Is Good.”

Seating for breakfast was less formal than dinner. We filled our trays at a buffet line and were allowed to sit wherever we wished. I found this delightful. (Oh, what a sad commentary on my new mortal mind that I, who once dictated the course of nations, should get excited about open seating.) I took my tray and found Meg, who was sitting by herself on the edge of the pavilion’s retaining wall, dangling her feet over the side and watching the waves at the beach.

“How are you?” I asked.

Meg nibbled on a waffle. “Yeah. Great.”

“You are a powerful demigod, daughter of Demeter.”


If I could trust my understanding of human responses, Meg did not seem thrilled.

“Your cabin mate, Billie…Is she nice?”

“Sure. All good.”

“And Peaches?”

She looked at me sideways. “Disappeared overnight. Guess he only shows up when I’m in danger.”

“Well, that’s an appropriate time for him to show up.”

“Ap-pro-pri-ate.” Meg touched a waffle square for each syllable. “Sherman Yang had to get seven stitches.”

I glanced over at Sherman, who sat at a safe distance across the pavilion, glaring daggers at Meg. A nasty red zigzag ran down the side of his face.

“I wouldn’t worry,” I told Meg. “Ares’s children like scars. Besides, Sherman wears the Frankenstein look rather well.”

The corner of her mouth twitched, but her gaze remained far away. “Our cabin has a grass floor—like, green grass. There’s a huge oak tree in the middle, holding up the ceiling.”

“Is that bad?”

“I have allergies.”

“Ah…” I tried to imagine the tree in her cabin. Once upon a time, Demeter had had a sacred grove of oaks. I remembered she’d gotten quite angry when a mortal prince tried to cut it down.

A sacred grove…

Suddenly the bacon in my stomach expanded, wrapping around my organs.

Meg gripped my arm. Her voice was a distant buzz. I only heard the last, most important word: “—Apollo?”

I stirred. “What?”

“You blanked out.” She scowled. “I said your name six times.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. Where did you go?”

I could not explain. I felt as if I’d been standing on the deck of a ship when an enormous, dark, and dangerous shape passed beneath the hull—a shape almost discernible, then simply gone.

“I—I don’t know. Something about trees….”

“Trees,” Meg said.

“It’s probably nothing.”

It wasn’t nothing. I couldn’t shake the image from my dreams: the crowned woman urging me to find the gates. That woman wasn’t Demeter—at least, I didn’t think so. But the idea of sacred trees stirred a memory within me…something very old, even by my standards.

I didn’t want to talk about this with Meg, not until I’d had time to reflect. She had enough to worry about. Besides, after last night, my new young master made me more apprehensive than ever.

I glanced at the rings on her middle fingers. “So yesterday…those swords. And don’t do that thing.”

Meg’s eyebrows furrowed. “What thing?”

“That thing where you shut down and refuse to talk. Your face turns to cement.”

She gave me a furious pout. “It does not. I’ve got swords. I fight with them. So what?”

“So it might have been nice to know that earlier, when we were in combat with plague spirits.”

“You said it yourself: those spirits couldn’t be killed.”

“You’re sidestepping.” I knew this because it was a tactic I had mastered centuries ago. “The style you fight in, with two curved blades, is the style of a dimachaerus, a gladiator from the late Roman Empire. Even back then, it was rare—possibly the most difficult fighting style to master, and one of the most deadly.”

Meg shrugged. It was an eloquent shrug, but it did not offer much in the way of explanation.

“Your swords are Imperial gold,” I said. “That would indicate Roman training, and mark you as a good prospect for Camp Jupiter. Yet your mother is Demeter, the goddess in her Greek form, not Ceres.”

“How do you know?”

“Aside from the fact that I was a god? Demeter claimed you here at Camp Half-Blood. That was no accident. Also, her older Greek form is much more powerful. You, Meg, are powerful.”

Her expression turned so guarded I expected Peaches to hurtle from the sky and start pulling out chunks of my hair.

“I never met my mom,” she said. “I didn’t know who she was.”

“Then where did you get the swords? Your father?”

Meg tore her waffle into tiny pieces. “No….My stepdad raised me. He gave me these rings.”

“Your stepfather. Your stepfather gave you rings that turn into Imperial golden swords. What sort of man—”

“A good man,” she snapped.

I noted the steel in Meg’s voice and let the subject rest. I sensed a great tragedy in her past. Also, I feared that if I pressed my questions, I might find those golden blades at my neck.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Mm-hm.” Meg tossed a piece of waffle into the air. Out of nowhere, one of the camp’s cleaning harpies swooped down like a two-hundred-pound kamikaze chicken, snatched up the food, and flew away.

Meg continued as if nothing had happened. “Let’s just get through today. We’ve got the race after lunch.”

A shiver ran down my neck. The last thing I wanted was to be strapped to Meg McCaffrey in the Labyrinth, but I managed to avoid screaming.

“Don’t worry about the race,” I said. “I have a plan for how to win it.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“Or rather, I will have a plan by this afternoon. All I need is a little time—”

Behind us, the conch horn blew.

“Morning boot camp!” Sherman Yang bellowed. “Let’s go, you special snowflakes! I want you all in tears by lunchtime!”

Practice makes perfect

Ha, ha, ha, I don’t think so

Ignore my sobbing

I WISHED I HAD A DOCTOR’S NOTE. I wanted to be excused from PE.

Honestly, I will never understand you mortals. You try to maintain good physical shape with push-ups, sit-ups, five-mile runs, obstacle courses, and other hard work that involves sweating. All the while, you know it is a losing battle. Eventually your weak, limited-use bodies will deteriorate and fail, giving you wrinkles, sagging parts, and old-person breath.

It’s horrific! If I want to change shape, or age, or gender, or species, I simply wish it to happen and—ka-bam!—I am a young, large, female three-toed sloth. No amount of push-ups will accomplish that. I simply don’t see the logic in your constant struggles. Exercise is nothing more than a depressing reminder that one is not a god.

By the end of Sherman Yang’s boot camp, I was gasping and drenched in sweat. My muscles felt like quivering columns of gelatinous dessert.

I did not feel like a special snowflake (though my mother, Leto, always assured me I was one), and I was sorely tempted to accuse Sherman of not treating me as such.

I grumbled about this to Will. I asked where the old head counselor of Ares had gone. Clarisse La Rue I could at least charm with my dazzling smile. Alas, Will reported she was attending the University of Arizona. Oh, why does college have to happen to perfectly good people?

After the torture, I staggered back to my cabin and took another shower.

Showers are good. Perhaps not as good as bacon, but good.

My second morning session was painful for a different reason. I was assigned to music lessons in the amphitheater with a satyr named Woodrow.

Woodrow seemed nervous to have me join his little class. Perhaps he had heard the legend about my skinning the satyr Marsyas alive after he challenged me to a music contest. (As I said, the flaying part was totally untrue, but rumors do have amazing staying power, especially when I may have been guilty of spreading them.)

Using his panpipe, Woodrow reviewed the minor scales. Austin had no problem with these, even though he was challenging himself by playing the violin, which was not his instrument. Valentina Diaz, a daughter of Aphrodite, did her best to throttle a clarinet, producing sounds like a basset hound whimpering in a thunderstorm. Damien White, son of Nemesis, lived up to his namesake by wreaking vengeance on an acoustic guitar. He played with such force that he broke the D string.

“You killed it!” said Chiara Benvenuti. She was the pretty Italian girl I’d noticed the night before—a child of Tyche, goddess of good fortune. “I needed to use that guitar!”

“Shut up, Lucky,” Damien muttered. “In the real world, accidents happen. Strings snap sometimes.”

Chiara unleashed some rapid-fire Italian that I decided not to translate.

“May I?” I reached for the guitar.

Damien reluctantly handed it over. I leaned toward the guitar case by Woodrow’s feet. The satyr leaped several inches into the air.

Austin laughed. “Relax, Woodrow. He’s just getting another string.”

I’ll admit I found the satyr’s reaction gratifying. If I could still scare satyrs, perhaps there was hope for me reclaiming some of my former glory. From here I could work my way up to scaring farm animals, then demigods, monsters, and minor deities.

In a matter of seconds, I had replaced the string. It felt good to do something so familiar and simple. I adjusted the pitch, but stopped when I realized Valentina was sobbing.

“That was so beautiful!” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “What was that song?”

I blinked. “It’s called tuning.”

“Yeah, Valentina, control yourself,” Damien chided, though his eyes were red. “It wasn’t that beautiful.”

“No.” Chiara sniffled. “It wasn’t.”

Only Austin seemed unaffected. His eyes shone with what looked like pride, though I didn’t understand why he would feel that way.

I played a C minor scale. The B string was flat. It’s always the B string. Three thousand years since I invented the guitar (during a wild party with the Hittites—long story), and I still couldn’t figure out how to make a B string that stays in tune.

I ran through the other scales, delighted that I still remembered them.

“Now this is a Lydian progression,” I said. “It starts on the fourth of the major scale. They say it’s called Lydian after the old kingdom of Lydia, but actually, I named it for an old girlfriend of mine, Lydia. She was the fourth woman I dated that year, so…”

I looked up mid-arpeggio. Damien and Chiara were weeping in each other’s arms, hitting each other weakly and cursing, “I hate you. I hate you.”

Valentina lay on the amphitheater bench, silently shaking. Woodrow was pulling apart his panpipes.

“I’m worthless!” he sobbed. “Worthless!”

Even Austin had a tear in his eye. He gave me a thumbs-up.

I was thrilled that some of my old skill remained intact, but I imagined Chiron would be annoyed if I drove the entire music class into major depression.

I pulled the D string slightly sharp—a trick I used to use to keep my adoring fans from exploding in rapture at my concerts. (And I mean literally exploding. Some of those gigs at the Fillmore in the 1960s…well, I’ll spare you the gruesome details.)

I strummed a chord that was intentionally out of tune. To me it sounded awful, but the campers stirred from their misery. They sat up, wiped their tears, and watched in fascination as I played a simple one-four-five progression.

“Yeah, man.” Austin brought his violin to his chin and began to improvise. His resin bow danced across the strings. He and I locked eyes, and for a moment we were more than family. We became part of the music, communicating on a level only gods and musicians will ever understand.

Woodrow broke the spell.

“That’s amazing,” the satyr sobbed. “You two should be teaching the class. What was I thinking? Please don’t flay me!”

“My dear satyr,” I said, “I would never—”

Suddenly, my fingers spasmed. I dropped the guitar in surprise. The instrument tumbled down the stone steps of the amphitheater, clanging and sproinging.

Austin lowered his bow. “You okay?”

“I…yes, of course.”

But I was not okay. For a few moments, I had experienced the bliss of my formerly easy talent. Yet, clearly, my new mortal fingers were not up to the task. My hand muscles were sore. Red lines dug into my finger pads where I had touched the fret board. I had overextended myself in other ways, too. My lungs felt shriveled, drained of oxygen, even though I had done no singing.

“I’m…tired,” I said, dismayed.

“Well, yeah.” Valentina nodded. “The way you were playing was unreal!”

“It’s okay, Apollo,” Austin said. “You’ll get stronger. When demigods use their powers, especially at first, they get tired quickly.”

“But I’m not…”

I couldn’t finish the sentence. I wasn’t a demigod. I wasn’t a god. I wasn’t even myself. How could I ever play music again, knowing that I was a flawed instrument? Each note would bring me nothing but pain and exhaustion. My B string would never be in tune.

My misery must have shown on my face.

Damien White balled his fists. “Don’t you worry, Apollo. It’s not your fault. I’ll make that stupid guitar pay for this!”

I didn’t try to stop him as he marched down the stairs. Part of me took perverse satisfaction in the way he stomped the guitar until it was reduced to kindling and wires.

Chiara huffed. “Idiota! Now I’ll never get my turn!”

Woodrow winced. “Well, um…thanks, everyone! Good class!”

Archery was an even bigger travesty.

If I ever become a god again (no, not if; when, when), my first act will be to wipe the memories of everyone who saw me embarrass myself in that class. I hit one bull’s-eye. One. The grouping on my other shots was abysmal. Two arrows actually hit outside the black ring at a mere one hundred meters. I threw down my bow and wept with shame.

Kayla was our class instructor, but her patience and kindness only made me feel worse. She scooped up my bow and offered it back to me.

“Apollo,” she said, “those shots were fantastic. A little more practice and—”

“I’m the god of archery!” I wailed. “I don’t practice!”

Next to me, the daughters of Nike snickered.

They had the insufferably appropriate names Holly and Laurel Victor. They reminded me of the gorgeous, ferociously athletic African nymphs Athena used to hang out with at Lake Tritonis.

“Hey, ex-god,” Holly said, nocking an arrow, “practice is the only way to improve.” She scored a seven on the red ring, but she did not seem at all discouraged.

“For you, maybe,” I said. “You’re a mortal!”

Her sister, Laurel, snorted. “So are you now. Suck it up. Winners don’t complain.” She shot her arrow, which landed next to her sister’s but just inside the red ring. “That’s why I’m better than Holly. She’s always complaining.”

“Yeah, right,” Holly growled. “The only thing I complain about is how lame you are.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Laurel. “Let’s go. Right now. Best two out of three shots. The loser scrubs the toilets for a month.”

“You’re on!”

Just like that, they forgot about me. They definitely would’ve made excellent Tritonian nymphs.

Kayla took me by the arm and led me downrange. “Those two, I swear. We made them Nike co-counselors so they’d compete with each other. If we hadn’t, they would’ve taken over the camp by now and proclaimed a dictatorship.”

I suppose she was trying to cheer me up, but I was not consoled.

I stared at my fingers, now blistered from archery as well as sore from guitar. Impossible. Agonizing.