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The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle/11

“I can’t do this, Kayla,” I muttered. “I’m too old to be sixteen again!”

Kayla cupped her hand over mine. Beneath the green shock of her hair, she had a ginger complexion—like cream painted over copper, the auburn sheen peeking through in the freckles of her face and arms. She reminded me very much of her father, the Canadian archery coach Darren Knowles.

I mean her other father. And, yes, of course it’s possible for a demigod child to spring from such a relationship. Why not? Zeus gave birth to Dionysus out of his own thigh. Athena once had a child who was created from a handkerchief. Why should such things surprise you? We gods are capable of infinite marvels.

Kayla took a deep breath, as if preparing for an important shot. “You can do it, Dad. You’re already good. Very good. You’ve just got to adjust your expectations. Be patient; be brave. You’ll get better.”

I was tempted to laugh. How could I get used to being merely good? Why would I strain myself to get better when before I had been divine?

“No,” I said bitterly. “No, it is too painful. I swear upon the River Styx—until I am a god again, I will not use a bow or a musical instrument!”

Go ahead and chide me. I know it was a foolish oath, spoken in a moment of misery and self-pity. And it was binding. An oath sworn on the River Styx can have terrible consequences if broken.

But I didn’t care. Zeus had cursed me with mortality. I was not going to pretend that everything was normal. I would not be Apollo until I was really Apollo. For now, I was just a stupid young man named Lester Papadopoulos. Maybe I would waste my time on skills I didn’t care about—like sword fighting or badminton—but I would not sully the memory of my once-perfect music and archery.

Kayla stared at me in horror. “Dad, you don’t mean it.”

“I do!”

“Take it back! You can’t…” She glanced over my shoulder. “What is he doing?”

I followed her gaze.

Sherman Yang was walking slowly, trancelike, into the woods.

It would have been foolhardy to run after him, straight into the most dangerous part of camp.

So that’s exactly what Kayla and I did.

We almost didn’t make it. As soon as we reached the tree line, the forest darkened. The temperature dropped. The horizon stretched out as if bent through a magnifying glass.

A woman whispered in my ear. This time I knew the voice well. It had never stopped haunting me. You did this to me. Come. Chase me again.

Fear rolled through my stomach.

I imagined the branches turning to arms; the leaves undulated like green hands.

Daphne, I thought.

Even after so many centuries, the guilt was overwhelming. I could not look at a tree without thinking of her. Forests made me nervous. The life force of each tree seemed to bear down on me with righteous hatred, accusing me of so many crimes….I wanted to fall to my knees. I wanted to beg forgiveness. But this was not the time.

I couldn’t allow the woods to confuse me again. I would not let anyone else fall into its trap.

Kayla didn’t seem affected. I grabbed her hand to make sure we stayed together. We only had to go a few steps, but it felt like a boot camp run before we reached Sherman Yang.

“Sherman.” I grabbed his arm.

He tried to shake me off. Fortunately, he was sluggish and dazed, or I would have ended up with scars of my own. Kayla helped me turn him around.

His eyes twitched as if he were in some sort of half-conscious REM sleep. “No. Ellis. Got to find him. Miranda. My girl.”

I glanced at Kayla for explanation.

“Ellis is from the Ares cabin,” she said. “He’s one of the missing.”

“Yes, but Miranda, his girl?”

“Sherman and she started dating about a week ago.”

“Ah.”

Sherman struggled to free himself. “Find her.”

“Miranda is right over here, my friend,” I lied. “We’ll take you there.”

He stopped fighting. His eyes rolled until only the whites were visible. “Over…here?”

“Yes.”

“Ellis?”

“Yes, it’s me,” I said. “I’m Ellis.”

“I love you, man,” Sherman sobbed.

Still, it took all our strength to lead him out of the trees. I was reminded of the time Hephaestus and I had to wrestle the god Hypnos back to bed after he sleepwalked into Artemis’s private chambers on Mount Olympus. It’s a wonder any of us escaped without silver arrows pincushioning our posteriors.

We led Sherman to the archery range. Between one step and the next, he blinked his eyes and became his normal self. He noticed our hands on his arms and shook us off.

“What is this?” he demanded.

“You were walking into the woods,” I said.

He gave us his drill sergeant glower. “No, I wasn’t.”

Kayla reached for him, then obviously thought better about it. Archery would be difficult with broken fingers. “Sherman, you were in some kind of trance. You were muttering about Ellis and Miranda.”

Along Sherman’s cheek, his zigzag scar darkened to bronze. “I don’t remember that.”

“Although you didn’t mention the other missing camper,” I added helpfully. “Cecil?”

“Why would I mention Cecil?” Sherman growled. “I can’t stand the guy. And why should I believe you?”

“The woods had you,” I said. “The trees were pulling you in.”

Sherman studied the forest, but the trees looked normal again. The lengthening shadows and swaying green hands were gone.

“Look,” Sherman said, “I have a head injury, thanks to your annoying friend Meg. If I was acting strange, that’s why.”

Kayla frowned. “But—”

“Enough!” Sherman snapped. “If either of you mention this, I’ll make you eat your quivers. I don’t need people questioning my self-control. Besides, I’ve got the race to think about.”

He brushed past us.

“Sherman,” I called.

He turned, his fists clenched.

“The last thing you remember,” I said, “before you found yourself with us…what were you thinking about?”

For a microsecond, the dazed look passed across his face again. “About Miranda and Ellis…like you said. I was thinking…I wanted to know where they were.”

“You were asking a question, then.” A blanket of dread settled over me. “You wanted information.”

“I…”

At the dining pavilion, the conch horn blew.

Sherman’s expression hardened. “Doesn’t matter. Drop it. We’ve got lunch now. Then I’m going to destroy you all in the three-legged death race.”

As threats went, I had heard worse, but Sherman made it sound intimidating enough. He marched off toward the pavilion.

Kayla turned to me. “What just happened?”

“I think I understand now,” I said. “I know why those campers went missing.”





Tied to McCaffrey

We might end up in Lima

Harley is evil

NOTE TO SELF: trying to reveal important information just before a three-legged death race is not a good idea.

No one would listen to me.

Despite last night’s grumbling and complaining, the campers were now buzzing with excitement. They spent their lunch hour frantically cleaning weapons, lacing armor straps, and whispering among one another to form secret alliances. Many tried to convince Harley, the course architect, to share hints about the best strategies.

Harley loved the attention. By the end of lunch, his table was piled high with offerings (read: bribes)—chocolate bars, peanut butter cups, gummy bears, and Hot Wheels. Harley would have made an excellent god. He took the gifts, mumbled a few pleasantries, but told his worshippers nothing helpful.

I tried to speak with Chiron about the dangers of the woods, but he was so frantic with last-minute race preparations that I almost got trampled just standing near him. He trotted nervously around the pavilion with a team of satyr and dryad referees in tow, comparing maps and issuing orders.

“The teams will be almost impossible to track,” he murmured, his face buried in a Labyrinth schematic. “And we don’t have any coverage in grid D.”

“But, Chiron,” I said, “if I could just—”

“The test group this morning ended up in Peru,” he told the satyrs. “We can’t have that happen again.”

“About the woods,” I said.

“Yes, I’m sorry, Apollo. I understand you are concerned—”

“The woods are actually speaking,” I said. “You remember the old—”

A dryad ran up to Chiron with her dress billowing smoke. “The flares are exploding!”

“Ye gods!” Chiron said. “Those were for emergencies!”

He galloped over my feet, followed by his mob of assistants.

And so it went. When one is a god, the world hangs on your every word. When one is sixteen…not so much.

I tried to talk to Harley, hoping he might postpone the race, but the boy brushed me off with a simple “Nah.”

As was so often the case with Hephaestus’s children, Harley was tinkering with some mechanical device, moving the springs and gears around. I didn’t really care what it was, but I asked Harley about it, hoping to win the boy’s goodwill.

“It’s a beacon,” he said, adjusting a knob. “For lost people.”

“You mean the teams in the Labyrinth?”

“No. You guys are on your own. This is for Leo.”

“Leo Valdez.”

Harley squinted at the device. “Sometimes, if you can’t find your way back, a beacon can help. Just got to find the right frequency.”

“And…how long have you been working on this?”

“Since he disappeared. Now I gotta concentrate. Can’t stop the race.” He turned his back on me and walked off.

I stared after him in amazement. For six months, the boy had been working on a beacon to help his missing brother Leo. I wondered if anyone would work so hard to bring me back home to Olympus. I very much doubted it.

I stood forlornly in a corner of the pavilion and ate a sandwich. I watched the sun wane in the winter sky and I thought about my chariot, my poor horses stuck in their stables with no one to take them out for a ride.

Of course, even without my help, other forces would keep the cosmos chugging along. Many different belief systems powered the revolution of the planets and stars. Wolves would still chase Sol across the sky. Ra would continue his daily journey in his sun barque. Tonatiuh would keep running on his surplus blood from human sacrifices back in the Aztec days. And that other thing—science—would still generate gravity and quantum physics and whatever.

Nevertheless, I felt like I wasn’t doing my part, standing around waiting for a three-legged race.

Even Kayla and Austin were too distracted to talk with me. Kayla had told Austin about our experience rescuing Sherman Yang from the woods, but Austin was more interested in swabbing out his saxophone.

“We can tell Chiron at dinner,” he mumbled with a reed in his mouth. “Nobody’s going to listen until the race is over, and we’ll be staying out of the woods anyway. Besides, if I can play the right tune in the Labyrinth…” He got a gleam in his eyes. “Ooh. Come here, Kayla. I have an idea.”

He steered her away and left me alone again.

I understood Austin’s enthusiasm, of course. His saxophone skills were so formidable, I was certain he would become the foremost jazz instrumentalist of his generation, and if you think it’s easy to get half a million views on YouTube playing jazz saxophone, think again. Still, his musical career was not going to happen if the force in the woods destroyed us all.

As a last resort (a very last resort), I sought out Meg McCaffrey.

I spotted her at one of the braziers, talking with Julia Feingold and Alice Miyazawa. Or rather, the Hermes girls were talking while Meg devoured a cheeseburger. I marveled that Demeter—the queen of grains, fruits, and vegetables—could have a daughter who was such an unrepentant carnivore.

Then again, Persephone was the same way. You’ll hear stories about the goddess of springtime being all sweetness and daffodils and nibbling on pomegranate seeds, but I’m telling you, that girl was frightening when she attacked a mound of pork spareribs.

I strode over to Meg’s side. The Hermes girls stepped back as if I were a snake handler. I found this reaction pleasing.

“Hello,” I said. “What are we talking about?”

Meg wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “These two wanna know our plans for the race.”

“I’m sure they do.” I plucked a small magnetic listening device from Meg’s coat sleeve and tossed it back to Alice.

Alice smiled sheepishly. “Can’t blame us for trying.”

“No, of course not,” I said. “In the same spirit, I hope you won’t mind what I did to your shoes. Have a good race!”

The girls shuffled off nervously, checking the soles of their sneakers.

Meg looked at me with something resembling respect. “What did you do to them?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Half the trick to being a god is knowing how to bluff.”

She snorted. “So what’s our top secret plan? Wait. Let me guess. You don’t have one.”

“You’re learning. Honestly, I meant to come up with one, but I got sidetracked. We have a problem.”

“Sure do.” From her coat pocket, she pulled two loops of bronze, like resistance bands of braided metal. “You’ve seen these? They wrap around our legs. Once they’re on, they stay on until the race is over. No way to get them off. I hate restraints.”

“I agree.” I was tempted to add especially when I am tied to a small child named Meg, but my natural diplomacy won out. “However, I was referring to a different problem.”

I told her about the incident during archery, when Sherman had almost been lured into the forest.

Meg removed her cat-eye glasses. Without the lenses, her dark irises looked softer and warmer, like tiny plots of planting soil. “You think something in the woods is calling to people?”

“I think something in the woods is answering people. In ancient times, there was an Oracle—”

“Yeah, you told me. Delphi.”

“No. Another Oracle, even older than Delphi. It involved trees. An entire grove of talking trees.”

“Talking trees.” Meg’s mouth twitched. “What was that Oracle called?”

“I—I can’t remember.” I ground my teeth. “I should know. I should be able to tell you instantly! But the information…It’s almost as if it is eluding me on purpose.”

“That happens sometimes,” Meg said. “You’ll think of it.”

“But it never happens to me! Stupid human brain! At any rate, I believe this grove is somewhere in those woods. I don’t know how or why. But the whispering voices…they are from this hidden Oracle. The sacred trees are trying to speak prophecies, reaching out to those with burning questions, luring them in.”

Meg put her glasses back on. “You know that sounds crazy, right?”

I steadied my breathing. I had to remind myself that I was no longer a god. I had to put up with insults from mortals without being able to blast them to ashes.

“Just be on guard,” I said.

“But the race doesn’t even go through the woods.”

“Nevertheless…we are not safe. If you can summon your friend Peaches, I would welcome his company.”

“I told you, he sort of pops up when he feels like it. I can’t—”

Chiron blew a hunting horn so loudly my vision doubled. Another pledge to myself: once I became a god again, I would descend upon this camp and take away all their horns.

“Demigods!” said the centaur. “Tie your legs together and follow me to your starting positions!”


We gathered in a meadow about a hundred yards from the Big House. Making it that far without a single life-threatening incident was a minor miracle. With my left leg bound to Meg’s right, I felt the way I used to in Leto’s womb just before my sister and I were born. And, yes, I remember that quite well. Artemis was always shoving me aside, elbowing me in the ribs and generally being a womb hog.

I said a silent prayer that if I got through this race alive, I would sacrifice a bull to myself and possibly even build myself a new temple. I am a sucker for bulls and temples.

The satyrs directed us to spread out across the meadow.

“Where is the starting line?” Holly Victor demanded, shoving her shoulder ahead of her sister’s. “I want to be the closest.”

“I want to be closest,” Laurel corrected. “You can be second closest.”

“Not to worry!” Woodrow the satyr sounded very worried. “We’ll explain everything in a moment. As soon as I, um, know what to explain.”

Will Solace sighed. He was, of course, tied to Nico. He propped his elbow on Nico’s shoulder as if the son of Hades were a convenient shelf. “I miss Grover. He used to organize things like this so well.”

“I’d settle for Coach Hedge.” Nico pushed Will’s arm off. “Besides, don’t talk about Grover too loudly. Juniper’s right over there.”

He pointed to one of the dryads—a pretty girl dressed in pale green.

“Grover’s girlfriend,” Will explained to me. “She misses him. A lot.”

“Okay, everybody!” Woodrow shouted. “Spread out a little bit more, please! We want you to have plenty of room so, you know, if you die, you won’t take down all the other teams too!”

Will sighed. “I am so excited.”

He and Nico loped off. Julia and Alice from the Hermes cabin checked their shoes one more time, then glared at me. Connor Stoll was paired with Paolo Montes, the Brazilian son of Hebe, and neither of them seemed happy about it.

Perhaps Connor looked glum because his mangled scalp was covered in so much medicinal salve his head looked like it had been coughed up by a cat. Or perhaps he just missed his brother Travis.

As soon as Artemis and I were born, we couldn’t wait to get some distance between us. We staked out our own territories and that was that. But I would’ve given anything to see her just then. I was sure Zeus had threatened her with severe punishment if she tried to help me during my time as a mortal, but she could have at least sent me a care package from Olympus—a decent toga, some magical acne cream, and maybe a dozen cranberry ambrosia scones from the Scylla Cafe. They made excellent scones.

I scanned the other teams. Kayla and Austin were bound together, looking like a deadly pair of street performers with her bow and his saxophone. Chiara, the cute girl from Tyche, was stuck with her nemesis, Damien White, son of…well, Nemesis. Billie Ng from Demeter was leg-tied with Valentina Diaz, who was hastily checking her makeup in the reflective surface of Billie’s silver coat. Valentina didn’t seem to notice that two twigs were sprouting from her hair like tiny deer antlers.