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The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle/23

blazed with fiery energy. The dragon Peleus hissed and paced around the trunk, ready to defend his turf.

These were powerful forces, but I did not need godly sight to tell me that they would soon fail. The camp’s defensive barriers were designed to turn away the occasional stray monster, to confuse mortals and prevent them from detecting the valley, and to provide a first line of defense against invading forces. A criminally beautiful hundred-foot-tall Celestial bronze giant was another thing entirely. Soon the Colossus would break through and destroy everything in its path.

“Apollo!” Kayla nudged me in the ribs. “What do we do?”

I stirred, again with the unpleasant realization that I was expected to have answers. My first instinct was to order a seasoned demigod to take charge. Wasn’t it the weekend yet? Where was Percy Jackson? Or those Roman praetors Frank Zhang and Reyna Ramírez-Arellano? Yes, they would have done nicely.

My second instinct was to turn to Meg McCaffrey. How quickly I had grown used to her annoying yet strangely endearing presence! Alas, she was gone. Her absence felt like a Colossus stomping upon my heart. (This was an easy metaphor to summon, since the Colossus was presently stomping on a great many things.)

Flanking us on either side, the soldier ants flew in formation, awaiting the queen’s orders. The demigods watched me anxiously, random bits of bandage fluff swirling from their bodies as we sped through the air.

I leaned forward and spoke to Mama in a soothing tone, “I know I cannot ask you to risk your life for us.”

Mama hummed as if to say, You’re darn right!

“Just give us one pass around that statue’s head?” I asked. “Enough to distract it. Then set us down on the beach?”

She clicked her mandibles doubtfully.

“You’re the best mama in the whole world,” I added, “and you look lovely today.”

That line always worked with Leto. It did the trick with Mama Ant, too. She twitched her antennae, perhaps sending a high-frequency signal to her soldiers, and all three ants banked hard to the right.

Below us, more campers joined the battle. Sherman Yang had harnessed two pegasi to a chariot and was now circling the statue’s legs, while Julia and Alice threw electric javelins at the Colossus’s knees. The missiles stuck in his joints, discharging tendrils of blue lightning, but the statue barely seemed to notice. Meanwhile, at his feet, Connor Stoll and Harley used twin flamethrowers to give the Colossus a molten pedicure, while the Nike twins manned a catapult, lobbing boulders at the Colossus’s Celestial bronze crotch.

Malcolm Pace, a true child of Athena, was coordinating the attacks from a hastily organized command post on the green. He and Nyssa had spread war maps across a card table and were shouting targeting coordinates, while Chiara, Damien, Paolo, and Billie rushed to set up ballistae around the communal hearth.

Malcolm looked like the perfect battlefield commander, except for the fact that he’d forgotten his pants. His red briefs made quite a statement with his sword and leather cuirass.

Mama dove toward the Colossus, leaving my stomach at a higher altitude.

I had a moment to appreciate the statue’s regal features, its metal brow rimmed with a spiky crown meant to represent the beams of the sun. The Colossus was supposed to be Nero as the sun god, but the emperor had wisely made the face resemble mine more closely than his. Only the line of its nose and its ghastly neck beard suggested Nero’s trademark ugliness.

Also…did I mention that the hundred-foot statue was entirely nude? Well, of course it was. Gods are almost always depicted as nude, because we are flawless beings. Why would you cover up perfection? Still, it was a little disconcerting to see my buck-naked self stomping around, slamming a ship’s rudder at Camp Half-Blood.

As we approached the Colossus, I bellowed loudly, “IMPOSTER! I AM THE REAL APOLLO! YOU’RE UGLY!”

Oh, dear reader, it was hard to yell such words at my own handsome visage, but I did. Such was my courage.

The Colossus did not like being insulted. As Mama and her soldiers veered away, the statue swung its rudder upward.

Have you ever collided with a bomber? I had a sudden flashback to Dresden in 1945, when the planes were so thick in the air, I literally could not find a safe lane to drive in. The axle on the sun chariot was out of alignment for weeks after that.

I realized the ants were not fast enough fliers to escape the rudder’s reach. I saw catastrophe approaching in slow motion. At the last possible moment, I yelled, “Dive!”

We plunged straight down. The rudder only clipped the ants’ wings—but it was enough to send us spiraling toward the beach.


I was grateful for soft sand.

I ate quite a bit of it when we crash-landed.

By sheer luck, none of us died, though Kayla and Austin had to pull me to my feet.

“Are you okay?” Austin asked.

“Fine,” I said. “We must hurry.”

The Colossus stared down at us, perhaps trying to discern whether we were dying in agony yet or needed some additional pain. I had wanted to get his attention, and I had succeeded. Huzzah.

I glanced at Mama and her soldiers, who were shaking the sand off their carapaces. “Thank you. Now save yourselves. Fly!”

They did not need to be told twice. I suppose ants have a natural fear of large humanoids looming over them, about to squash them with a heavy foot. Mama and her guards buzzed into the sky.

Miranda looked after them. “I never thought I’d say this about bugs, but I’m going to miss those guys.”

“Hey!” called Nico di Angelo. He and Will scrambled over the dunes, still dripping from their swim in the canoe lake.

“What’s the plan?” Will seemed calm, but I knew him well enough by now to tell that inside he was as charged as a bare electrical wire.

BOOM.

The statue strode toward us. One more step, and it would be on top of us.

“Isn’t there a control valve on its ankle?” Ellis asked. “If we can open it—”

“No,” I said. “You’re thinking of Talos. This is not Talos.”

Nico brushed his dark wet hair from his forehead. “Then what?”

I had a lovely view of the Colossus’s nose. Its nostrils were sealed with bronze…I supposed because Nero hadn’t wanted his detractors trying to shoot arrows into his imperial noggin.

I yelped.

Kayla grabbed my arm. “Apollo, what’s wrong?”

Arrows into the Colossus’s head. Oh, gods, I had an idea that would never, ever work. However, it seemed better than our other option, which was to be crushed under a two-ton bronze foot.

“Will, Kayla, Austin,” I said, “come with me.”

“And Nico,” said Nico. “I have a doctor’s note.”

“Fine!” I said. “Ellis, Cecil, Miranda—do whatever you can to keep the Colossus’s attention.”

The shadow of an enormous foot darkened the sand.

“Now!” I yelled. “Scatter!”





I love me some plague

When it’s on the right arrow

Ka-bam! You dead, bro?

SCATTERING WAS THE EASY PART. They did that very well.

Miranda, Cecil, and Ellis ran in different directions, screaming insults at the Colossus and waving their arms. This bought the rest of us a few seconds as we sprinted for the dunes, but I suspected the Colossus would soon enough come after me. I was, after all, the most important and attractive target.

I pointed toward Sherman Yang’s chariot, which was still circling the statue’s legs in a vain attempt to electrocute its kneecaps. “We need to commandeer that chariot!”

“How?” Kayla asked.

I was about to admit I had no idea when Nico di Angelo grabbed Will’s hand and stepped into my shadow. Both boys evaporated. I had forgotten about the power of shadow-traveling—the way children of the Underworld could step into one shadow and appear from another, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Hades used to love sneaking up on me that way and yelling, “HI!” just as I shot an arrow of death. He found it amusing if I missed my target and accidentally wiped out the wrong city.

Austin shuddered. “I hate it when Nico disappears like that. What’s our plan?”

“You two are my backup,” I said. “If I miss, if I die…it will be up to you.”

“Whoa, whoa,” Kayla said. “What do you mean if you miss?”

I drew my last arrow—the one I’d found in the grove. “I’m going to shoot that gorgeous gargantuan in the ear.”

Austin and Kayla exchanged looks, perhaps wondering if I’d finally cracked under the strain of being mortal.

“A plague arrow,” I explained. “I’m going to enchant an arrow with sickness, then shoot it into the statue’s ear. Its head is hollow. The ears are the only openings. The arrow should release enough disease to kill the Colossus’s animating power…or at least to disable it.”

“How do you know it will work?” Kayla asked.

“I don’t, but—”

Our conversation was ruined by a sudden heavy downpour of Colossus foot. We darted inland, barely avoiding being flattened.

Behind us, Miranda shouted, “Hey, ugly!”

I knew she wasn’t talking to me, but I glanced back anyway. She raised her arms, causing ropes of sea grass to spring from the dunes and wrap around the statue’s ankles. The Colossus broke through them easily, but they annoyed him enough to be a distraction. Watching Miranda face the statue made me heartsick for Meg all over again.

Meanwhile, Ellis and Cecil stood on either side of the Colossus, throwing rocks at his shins. From the camp, a volley of flaming ballista projectiles exploded against Mr. Gorgeous’s naked backside, which made me clench in sympathy.

“You were saying?” Austin asked.

“Right.” I twirled the arrow between my fingers. “I know what you’re thinking. I don’t have godly powers. It’s doubtful I’ll be able to cook up the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. But still, if I can make the shot from close range, straight into its head, I might be able to do some damage.”

“And…if you fail?” Kayla asked. I noticed her quiver was also empty.

“I won’t have the strength to try twice. You’ll have to make another pass. Find an arrow, try to summon some sickness, make the shot while Austin holds the chariot steady.”

I realized this was an impossible request, but they accepted it with grim silence. I wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful or guilty. Back when I was a god, I would’ve taken it for granted that mortals had faith in me. Now…I was asking my children to risk their lives again, and I was not at all sure my plan would work.

I caught a flash of movement in the sky. This time, instead of a Colossus foot, it was Sherman Yang’s chariot, minus Sherman Yang. Will brought the pegasi in for a landing, then dragged out a half-conscious Nico di Angelo.

“Where are the others?” Kayla asked. “Sherman and the Hermes girls?”

Will rolled his eyes. “Nico convinced them to disembark.”

As if on cue, I heard Sherman screaming from somewhere far in the distance, “I’ll get you, di Angelo!”

“You guys go,” Will told me. “The chariot is only designed for three, and after that shadow-travel, Nico is going to pass out any second.”

“No, I’m not,” Nico complained, then passed out.

Will caught him in a fireman’s carry and took him away. “Good luck! I’m going to get the Lord of Darkness here some Gatorade!”

Austin hopped in first and took the reins. As soon as Kayla and I were aboard, we shot skyward, the pegasi swerving and banking around the Colossus with expert skill. I began to feel a glimmer of hope. We might be able to outmaneuver this giant hunk of good-looking bronze.

“Now,” I said, “if I can just enchant this arrow with a nice plague.”

The arrow shuddered from its fletching to its point.

THOU SHALT NOT, it told me.


I try to avoid weapons that talk. I find them rude and distracting. Once, Artemis had a bow that could cuss like a Phoenician sailor. Another time, in a Stockholm tavern, I met this god who was smoking hot, except his talking sword just would not shut up.

But I digress.

I asked the obvious question. “Did you just speak to me?”

The arrow quivered. (Oh, dear. That was a horrible pun. My apologies.) YEA, VERILY. PRITHEE, SHOOTING IS NOT MY PURPOSE.

His voice was definitely male, sonorous and grave, like a bad Shakespearean actor’s.

“But you’re an arrow,” I said. “Shooting you is the whole point.” (Ah, I really must watch those puns.)

“Guys, hang on!” Austin shouted.

The chariot plunged to avoid the Colossus’s swinging rudder. Without Austin’s warning, I would have been left in midair still arguing with my projectile.

“So you’re made from Dodona oak,” I guessed. “Is that why you talk?”

FORSOOTH, said the arrow.

“Apollo!” Kayla said. “I’m not sure why you’re talking to that arrow, but—”

From our right came a reverberating WHANG! like a snapped power line hitting a metal roof. In a flash of silver light, the camp’s magical barriers collapsed. The Colossus lurched forward and brought his foot down on the dining pavilion, smashing it to rubble like so many children’s blocks.

“But that just happened,” Kayla said with a sigh.

The Colossus raised his rudder in triumph. He marched inland, ignoring the campers who were running around his feet. Valentina Diaz launched a ballista missile into his groin. (Again, I had to wince in sympathy.) Harley and Connor Stoll kept blowtorching his feet, to no effect. Nyssa, Malcolm, and Chiron hastily ran a trip line of steel cable across the statue’s path, but they would never have time to anchor it properly.

I turned to Kayla. “You can’t hear this arrow talking?”

Judging from her wide eyes, I guessed the answer was, No, and does hallucinating run in the family?

“Never mind.” I looked at the arrow. “What would you suggest, O Wise Missile of Dodona? My quiver is empty.”

The arrow’s point dipped toward the statue’s left arm. LO, THE ARMPIT DOTH HOLD THE ARROWS THOU NEEDEST!

Kayla yelled, “Colossus is heading for the cabins!”

“Armpit!” I told Austin. “Flieth—er, fly for the armpit!”

That wasn’t an order one heard much in combat, but Austin spurred the pegasi into a steep ascent. We buzzed the forest of arrows sticking out of the Colossus’s arm seam, but I completely overestimated my mortal hand-eye coordination. I lunged for the shafts and came up empty.

Kayla was more agile. She snagged a fistful but screamed when she yanked them free.

I pulled her to safety. Her hand was bleeding badly, cut from the high-speed grab.

“I’m fine!” Kayla yelped. Her fingers were clenched, splattering drops of red all over the chariot’s floor. “Take the arrows.”

I did. I tugged the Brazilian-flag bandana from around my neck and gave it to her. “Bind your hand,” I ordered. “There’s some ambrosia in my coat pocket.”

“Don’t worry about me.” Kayla’s face was as green as her hair. “Make the shot! Hurry!”

I inspected the arrows. My heart sank. Only one of the missiles was unbroken, and its shaft was warped. It would be almost impossible to shoot.

I looked again at the talking arrow.

THOU SHALT NOT THINKEST ABOUT IT, he intoned. ENCHANT THOU THE WARPED ARROW!

I tried. I opened my mouth, but the proper words of enchantment were gone from my mind. As I feared, Lester Papadopoulos simply did not possess the power. “I can’t!”

I SHALT ASSIST, promised the Arrow of Dodona. STARTEST THOU: “PLAGUEY, PLAGUEY, PLAGUEY.”

“The enchantment does not start plaguey, plaguey, plaguey!”

“Who are you talking to?” Austin demanded.

“My arrow! I—I need more time.”

“We don’t have more time!” Kayla pointed with her wrapped bloody hand.

The Colossus was only a few steps away from the central green. I wasn’t sure the demigods even realized how much danger they were in. The Colossus could do much more than just flatten buildings. If he destroyed the central hearth, the sacred shrine of Hestia, he would extinguish the very soul of the camp. The valley would be cursed and uninhabitable for generations. Camp Half-Blood would cease to exist.

I realized I had failed. My plan would take much too long, if I could even remember how to make a plague arrow. This was my punishment for breaking an oath on the River Styx.

Then, from somewhere above us, a voice yelled, “Hey, Bronze Butt!”

Over the Colossus’s head, a cloud of darkness formed like a cartoon dialogue bubble. Out of the shadows dropped a furry black monster dog—a hellhound—and astride his back was a young man with a glowing bronze sword.

The weekend was here. Percy Jackson had arrived.





Hey, look! It’s Percy

Least he could do was help out

Taught him everything

I WAS TOO SURPRISED TO SPEAK. Otherwise I would have warned Percy what was about to happen.

Hellhounds are not fond of heights. When startled, they respond in a predictable way. The moment Percy’s faithful pet landed on top of the moving Colossus, she yelped and proceeded to wee-wee on said Colossus’s head. The statue froze and looked up, no doubt wondering what was trickling down his imperial sideburns.

Percy leaped heroically from his mount and slipped in hellhound pee. He nearly slid off the statue’s brow. “What the—Mrs. O’Leary, jeez!”

The hellhound bayed in apology. Austin flew our chariot to within shouting distance. “Percy!”

The son of Poseidon frowned across at us. “All right, who unleashed the giant bronze guy? Apollo, did you do this?”

“I am offended!” I cried. “I am only indirectly responsible for this! Also, I have a plan to fix it.”

“Oh, yeah?” Percy glanced back at the destroyed dining pavilion. “How’s that going?”

With my usual levelheadedness, I stayed focused on the greater good. “If you could please just keep this Colossus from stomping the camp’s hearth, that would be helpful. I need a few more minutes to enchant this arrow.”

I held up the talking arrow by mistake, then held up the bent arrow.

Percy sighed. “Of course you do.”

Mrs. O’Leary barked in alarm. The Colossus was raising his hand to swat the trespassing tinkler.

Percy grabbed one of the crown’s sunray spikes. He sliced it off at the base, then jabbed it into the Colossus’s forehead. I doubted the Colossus could feel pain, but it staggered, apparently surprised to suddenly have grown a unicorn horn.

Percy sliced off another one. “Hey, ugly!” he called down. “You don’t need all these pointy things, do you? I’m going to take one to the beach. Mrs. O’Leary, fetch!”

Percy tossed the spike like a javelin.

The hellhound barked excitedly. She leaped off the Colossus’s head, vaporized