The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle/22

up its trunk and drumming through its bark. The central tree seemed to be one giant antenna for crazy talk.

My knees were about to buckle. Meg’s treads were grinding into my forehead. The A 440 I had been humming rapidly deflated to a G sharp.

Finally, Meg tied the wind chimes to the branch. She jumped down as my legs collapsed, and we both ended up sprawled in the dirt.

The brass chimes swayed and clanged, picking notes out of the wind and making chords from the dissonance.

The grove hushed, as if the trees were listening and thinking, Oooh, pretty.

Then the ground trembled. The central oak shook with such energy, it rained acorns.

Meg got to her feet. She approached the tree and touched its trunk.

“Speak,” she commanded.

A single voice boomed forth from the wind chimes, like a cheerleader screaming through a megaphone:

There once was a god named Apollo

Who plunged in a cave blue and hollow

Upon a three-seater

The bronze fire-eater

Was forced death and madness to swallow

The wind chimes stilled. The grove settled into tranquility, as if satisfied with the death sentence it had given me.

Oh, the horror!

A sonnet I could have handled. A quatrain would have been cause for celebration. But only the deadliest prophecies are couched in the form of a limerick.

I stared at the wind chimes, hoping they would speak again and correct themselves. Oops, our mistake! That prophecy was for a different Apollo!

But my luck was not that good. I had been handed an edict worse than a thousand advertisements for pasta makers.

Peaches rose. He shook his head and hissed at the oak tree, which expressed my own sentiments perfectly. He hugged Meg’s calf as if she were the only thing keeping him from falling off the world. The scene was almost sweet, except for the karpos’s fangs and glowing eyes.

Meg regarded me warily. The lenses of her glasses were spiderwebbed with cracks.

“That prophecy,” she said. “Did you understand it?”

I swallowed a mouthful of soot. “Perhaps. Some of it. We’ll need to talk to Rachel—”

“There’s no more we.” Meg’s tone was as acrid as the volcanic gas of Delphi. “Do what you need to do. That’s my final order.”

This hit me like a spear shaft to the chin, despite the fact that she had lied to me and betrayed me.

“Meg, you can’t.” I couldn’t keep the shakiness out of my voice. “You claimed my service. Until my trials are over—”

“I release you.”

“No!” I could not stand the idea of being abandoned. Not again. Not by this ragamuffin Dumpster queen whom I’d learned to care about so much. “You can’t possibly believe in Nero now. You heard him explain his plans. He means to level this entire island! You saw what he tried to do to his hostages.”

“He—he wouldn’t have let them burn. He promised. He held back. You saw it. That wasn’t the Beast.”

My rib cage felt like an over-tightened harp. “Meg…Nero is the Beast. He killed your father.”

“No! Nero is my stepfather. My dad…my dad unleashed the Beast. He made it angry.”


“Stop!” She covered her ears. “You don’t know him. Nero is good to me. I can talk to him. I can make it okay.”

Her denial was so complete, so irrational, I realized there was no way I could argue with her. She reminded me painfully of myself when I fell to earth—how I had refused to accept my new reality. Without Meg’s help, I would’ve gotten myself killed. Now our roles were reversed.

I edged toward her, but Peaches’s snarl stopped me in my tracks.

Meg backed away. “We’re done.”

“We can’t be,” I said. “We’re bound, whether you like it or not.”

It occurred to me that she’d said the exact same thing to me only a few days before.

She gave me one last look through her cracked lenses. I would have given anything for her to blow a raspberry. I wanted to walk the streets of Manhattan with her doing cartwheels in the intersections. I missed hobbling with her through the Labyrinth, our legs tied together. I would’ve settled for a good garbage fight in an alley. Instead, she turned and fled, with Peaches at her heels. It seemed to me that they dissolved into the trees, just the way Daphne had done long ago.

Above my head, a breeze made the wind chimes jingle. This time, no voices came from the trees. I didn’t know how long Dodona would remain silent, but I didn’t want to be here if the oaks decided to start telling jokes again.

I turned and saw something strange at my feet: an arrow with an oak shaft and green fletching.

There shouldn’t have been an arrow. I hadn’t brought any into the grove. But in my dazed state, I didn’t question this. I did what any archer would do: I retrieved it, and returned it to my quiver.

Uber’s got nothing

Lyft is weak. And taxis? Nah

My ride is da mom


They looked like they had been dipped in a vat of glue and cotton swabs, but otherwise they seemed remarkably undamaged. Ellis Wakefield staggered around with his fists clenched, looking for something to punch. Cecil Markowitz, son of Hermes, sat on the ground trying to clean his sneakers with a deer’s thighbone. Austin—resourceful boy!—had produced a canteen of water and was washing the Greek fire off of Kayla’s face. Miranda Gardiner, the head counselor of Demeter, knelt by the place where the dryads had sacrificed themselves. She wept silently.

Paulie the palikos floated toward me. Like his partner, Pete, his lower half was all steam. From the waist up he looked like a slimmer, more abused version of his geyser buddy. His mud skin was cracked like a parched riverbed. His face was withered, as if every bit of moisture had been squeezed out of him. Looking at the damage Nero had done to him, I added a few more items to a mental list I was preparing: Ways to Torture an Emperor in the Fields of Punishment.

“You saved me,” Paulie said with amazement. “Bring it in!”

He threw his arms around me. His power was so diminished that his body heat did not kill me, but it did open up my sinuses quite well.

“You should get home,” I said. “Pete is worried, and you need to regain your strength.”

“Ah, man…” Paulie wiped a steaming tear from his face. “Yeah, I’m gone. But anything you ever need—a free steam cleaning, some PR work, a mud scrub, you name it.”

As he dissolved into mist, I called after him. “And Paulie? I’d give the Woods at Camp Half-Blood a ten for customer satisfaction.”

Paulie beamed with gratitude. He tried to hug me again, but he was already ninety percent steam. All I got was a humid waft of mud-scented air. Then he was gone.

The five demigods gathered around me.

Miranda looked past me at the grove of Dodona. Her eyes were still puffy from crying, but she had beautiful irises the color of new foliage. “So, the voices I heard from that grove…It’s really an oracle? Those trees can give us prophecies?”

I shivered, thinking of the oak trees’ limerick. “Perhaps.”

“Can I see—?”

“No,” I said. “Not until we understand the place better.”

I had already lost one daughter of Demeter today. I didn’t intend to lose another.

“I don’t get it,” Ellis grumbled. “You’re Apollo? Like, the Apollo.”

“I’m afraid so. It’s a long story.”

“Oh, gods…” Kayla scanned the clearing. “I thought I heard Meg’s voice earlier. Did I dream that? Was she with you? Is she okay?”

The others looked at me for an explanation. Their expressions were so fragile and tentative, I decided I couldn’t break down in front of them.

“She’s…alive,” I managed. “She had to leave.”

“What?” Kayla asked. “Why?”

“Nero,” I said. “She…she went after Nero.”

“Hold up.” Austin raised his fingers like goalposts. “When you say Nero…”

I did my best to explain how the mad emperor had captured them. They deserved to know. As I recounted the story, Nero’s words kept replaying in my mind: My wrecking crew will be here any minute. Once Camp Half-Blood is destroyed, I’ll make it my new front lawn!

I wanted to think this was just bluster. Nero had always loved threats and grandiose statements. Unlike me, he was a terrible poet. He used flowery language like…well, like every sentence was a pungent bouquet of metaphors. (Oh, that’s another good one. Jotting that down.)

Why had he kept checking his watch? And what wrecking crew could he have been talking about? I had a flashback to my dream of the sun bus careening toward a giant bronze face.

I felt like I was free-falling again. Nero’s plan became horribly clear. After dividing the few demigods defending the camp, he had meant to burn this grove. But that was only part of his attack….

“Oh, gods,” I said. “The Colossus.”

The five demigods shifted uneasily.

“What Colossus?” Kayla asked. “You mean the Colossus of Rhodes?”

“No,” I said. “The Colossus Neronis.”

Cecil scratched his head. “The Colossus Neurotic?”

Ellis Wakefield snorted. “You’re a Colossus Neurotic, Markowitz. Apollo’s talking about the big replica of Nero that stood outside the amphitheater in Rome, right?”

“I’m afraid so,” I said. “While we’re standing here, Nero is going to try to destroy Camp Half-Blood. And the Colossus will be his wrecking crew.”

Miranda flinched. “You mean a giant statue is about to stomp on camp? I thought the Colossus was destroyed centuries ago.”

Ellis frowned. “Supposedly, so was the Athena Parthenos. Now it’s sitting on top of Half-Blood Hill.”

The others’ expressions turned grim. When a child of Ares makes a valid point, you know the situation is serious.

“Speaking of Athena…” Austin picked some incendiary fluff off his shoulder. “Won’t the statue protect us? I mean, that’s what she’s there for, right?”

“She will try,” I guessed. “But you must understand, the Athena Parthenos draws her power from her followers. The more demigods under her care, the more formidable her magic. And right now—”

“The camp is practically empty,” Miranda finished.

“Not only that,” I said, “but the Athena Parthenos is roughly forty feet tall. If memory serves, Nero’s Colossus was more than twice that.”

Ellis grunted. “So they’re not in the same weight class. It’s an uneven match.”

Cecil Markowitz stood a little straighter. “Guys…did you feel that?”

I thought he might be playing one of his Hermes pranks. Then the ground shook again, ever so slightly. From somewhere in the distance came a rumbling sound like a battleship scraping over a sandbar.

“Please tell me that was thunder,” Kayla said.

Ellis cocked his head, listening. “It’s a war machine. A big automaton wading ashore about half a klick from here. We need to get to camp right now.”

No one argued with Ellis’s assessment. I supposed he could distinguish between the sounds of war machines the same way I could pick out an off-tune violin in a Rachmaninoff symphony.

To their credit, the demigods rose to the challenge. Despite the fact that they’d been recently bound, doused in flammable substances, and staked like human tiki torches, they closed ranks and faced me with determination in their eyes.

“How do we get out of here?” Austin asked. “The myrmekes’ lair?”

I felt suddenly suffocated, partly because I had five people looking at me as if I knew what to do. I didn’t. In fact, if you want to know a secret, we gods usually don’t. When confronted for answers, we usually say something Rhea-like: You will have to find out for yourself! Or True wisdom must be earned! But I didn’t think that would fly in this situation.

Also, I had no desire to plunge back into the ants’ nest. Even if we made it through alive, it would take much too long. Then we would have to run perhaps half the length of the forest.

I stared at the Vince-shaped hole in the canopy. “I don’t suppose any of you can fly?”

They shook their heads.

“I can cook,” Cecil offered.

Ellis smacked him on the shoulder.

I looked back at the myrmekes’ tunnel. The solution came to me like a voice whispering in my ear: You know someone who can fly, stupid.

It was a risky idea. Then again, rushing off to fight a giant automaton was also not the safest plan of action.

“I think there’s a way,” I said. “But I’ll need your help.”

Austin balled his fists. “Anything you need. We’re ready to fight.”

“Actually…I don’t need you to fight. I need you to lay down a beat.”

My next important discovery: Children of Hermes cannot rap. At all.

Bless his conniving little heart, Cecil Markowitz tried his best, but he kept throwing off my rhythm section with his spastic clapping and terrible air mic noises. After a few trial runs, I demoted him to dancer. His job would be to shimmy back and forth and wave his hands, which he did with the enthusiasm of a tent-revival preacher.

The others managed to keep up. They still looked like half-plucked, highly combustible chickens, but they bopped with the proper amount of soul.

I launched into “Mama,” my throat reinforced with water and cough drops from Kayla’s belt pack. (Ingenious girl! Who brings cough drops on a three-legged death race?)

I sang directly into the mouth of the myrmekes’ tunnel, trusting the acoustics to carry my message. We did not have to wait long. The earth began to rumble beneath our feet. I kept singing. I had warned my comrades not to stop laying down the righteous beat until the song was over.

Still, I almost lost it when the ground exploded. I had been watching the tunnel, but Mama did not use tunnels. She exited wherever she wanted—in this case, straight out of the earth twenty yards away, spraying dirt, grass, and small boulders in all directions. She scuttled forward, mandibles clacking, wings buzzing, dark Teflon eyes focused on me. Her abdomen was no longer swollen, so I assumed she had finished depositing her most recent batch of killer-ant larvae. I hoped this meant she would be in a good mood, not a hungry mood.

Behind her, two winged soldiers clambered out of the earth. I had not been expecting bonus ants. (Really, bonus ants is not a term most people would like to hear.) They flanked the queen, their antennae quivering.

I finished my ode, then dropped to one knee, spreading my arms as I had before.

“Mama,” I said, “we need a ride.”

My logic was this: Mothers were used to giving rides. With thousands upon thousands of offspring, I assumed the queen ant would be the ultimate soccer mom. And indeed, Mama grabbed me with her mandibles and tossed me over her head.

Despite what the demigods may tell you, I did not flail, scream, or land in a way that damaged my sensitive parts. I landed heroically, straddling the queen’s neck, which was no larger than the back of an average warhorse. I shouted to my comrades, “Join me! It’s perfectly safe!”

For some reason, they hesitated. The ants did not. The queen tossed Kayla just behind me. The soldier ants followed Mama’s lead—snapping up two demigods each and throwing them aboard.

The three myrmekes revved their wings with a noise like radiator fan blades. Kayla grabbed my waist.

“Is this really safe?” she yelled.

“Perfectly!” I hoped I was right. “Perhaps even safer than the sun chariot!”

“Didn’t the sun chariot almost destroy the world once?”

“Well, twice,” I said. “Three times, if you count the day I let Thalia Grace drive, but—”

“Forget I asked!”

Mama launched herself into the sky. The canopy of twisted branches blocked our path, but Mama didn’t pay any more attention to them than she had to the ton of solid earth she’d plowed through.

I yelled, “Duck!”

We flattened ourselves against Mama’s armored head as she smashed through the trees, leaving a thousand wooden splinters embedded in my back. It felt so good to fly again, I didn’t care. We soared above the woods and banked to the east.

For two or three seconds, I was exhilarated.

Then I heard the screaming from Camp Half-Blood.

Buck-naked statue

A Neurotic Colossus

Where art thy undies?

EVEN MY SUPERNATURAL POWERS of description fail me.

Imagine seeing yourself as a hundred-foot-tall bronze statue—a replica of your own magnificence, gleaming in the late afternoon light.

Now imagine that this ridiculously handsome statue is wading out of Long Island Sound onto the North Shore. In his hand is a ship’s rudder—a blade the size of a stealth bomber, fixed to a fifty-foot-long pole—and Mr. Gorgeous is raising said rudder to smash the crud out of Camp Half-Blood.

This was the sight that greeted us as we flew in from the woods.

“How is that thing alive?” Kayla demanded. “What did Nero do—order it online?”

“The Triumvirate has vast resources,” I told her. “They’ve had centuries to prepare. Once they reconstructed the statue, all they had to do was fill it with some animating magic—usually the harnessed life forces of wind or water spirits. I’m not sure. That’s really more of Hephaestus’s specialty.”

“So how do we kill it?”

“I’m…I’m working on that.”

All across the valley, campers screamed and ran for their weapons. Nico and Will were floundering in the lake, apparently having been capsized in the middle of a canoe ride. Chiron galloped through the dunes, harrying the Colossus with his arrows. Even by my standards, Chiron was a very fine archer. He targeted the statue’s joints and seams, yet his shots did not seem to bother the automaton at all. Already dozens of missiles stuck from the Colossus’s armpits and neck like unruly hair.

“More quivers!” Chiron shouted. “Quickly!”

Rachel Dare stumbled from the armory carrying half a dozen, and she ran to resupply him.

The Colossus brought down his rudder to smash the dining pavilion, but his blade bounced off the camp’s magical barrier, sparking as if it had hit solid metal. Mr. Gorgeous took another step inland, but the barrier resisted him, pushing him back with the force of a wind tunnel.

On Half-Blood Hill, a silver aura surrounded the Athena Parthenos. I wasn’t sure the demigods could see it, but every so often a beam of ultraviolet light shot from Athena’s helmet like a search lamp, hitting the Colossus’s chest and pushing back the invader. Next to her, in the tall pine tree, the Golden Fleece