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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/24
into shadow, and reappeared on the ground, bounding after her new bronze stick.
Percy raised his eyebrows at me. “Well? Start enchanting!”
He jumped from the statue’s head to its shoulder. Then he leaped to the shaft of the rudder and slid down it like a fire pole all the way to the ground. If I had been at my usual level of godly athletic skill, I could’ve done something like that in my sleep, of course, but I had to admit Percy Jackson was moderately impressive.
“Hey, Bronze Butt!” he yelled again. “Come get me!”
The Colossus obliged, slowly turning and following Percy toward the beach.
I began to chant, invoking my old powers as the god of plagues. This time, the words came to me. I didn’t know why. Perhaps Percy’s arrival had given me new faith. Perhaps I simply didn’t think about it too much. I’ve found that thinking often interferes with doing. It’s one of those lessons that gods learn early in their careers.
I felt an itchy sensation of sickness curling from my fingers and into the projectile. I spoke of my own awesomeness and the various horrible diseases I had visited upon wicked populations in the past, because…well, I’m awesome. I could feel the magic taking hold, despite the Arrow of Dodona whispering to me like an annoying Elizabethan stagehand, SAYEST THOU: “PLAGUEY, PLAGUEY, PLAGUEY!”
Below, more demigods joined the parade to the beach. They ran ahead of the Colossus, jeering at him, throwing things, and calling him Bronze Butt. They made jokes about his new horn. They laughed at the hellhound pee trickling down his face. Normally I have zero tolerance for bullying, especially when the victim looks like me, but since the Colossus was ten stories tall and destroying their camp, I suppose the campers’ rudeness was understandable.
I finished chanting. Odious green mist now wreathed the arrow. It smelled faintly of fast-food deep fryers—a good sign that it carried some sort of horrible malady.
“I’m ready!” I told Austin. “Get me next to its ear!”
“You got it!” Austin turned to say something else, and a wisp of green fog passed under his nose. His eyes watered. His nose swelled and began to run. He scrunched up his face and sneezed so hard he collapsed. He lay on the floor of the chariot, groaning and twitching.
“My boy!” I wanted to grab his shoulders and check on him, but since I had an arrow in each hand, that was inadvisable.
FIE! TOO STRONG IS THY PLAGUE. The Dodona arrow hummed with annoyance. THY CHANTING SUCKETH.
“Oh, no, no, no,” I said. “Kayla, be careful. Don’t breathe—”
“ACHOO!” Kayla crumpled next to her brother.
“What have I done?” I wailed.
METHINKS THOU HAST BLOWN IT, said the Dodona arrow, my source of infinite wisdom. MOREO’ER, HIE! TAKEST THOU THE REINS.
You would think a god who drove a chariot on a daily basis would not need to ask such a question. In my defense, I was distraught about my children lying half-conscious at my feet. I didn’t consider that no one was driving. Without anyone at the reins, the pegasi panicked. To avoid running into the huge bronze Colossus directly in their path, they dove toward the earth.
Somehow, I managed to react appropriately. (Three cheers for reacting appropriately!) I thrust both arrows into my quiver, grabbed the reins, and managed to level our descent just enough to prevent a crash landing. We bounced off a dune and swerved to a stop in front of Chiron and a group of demigods. Our entrance might have looked dramatic if the centrifugal force hadn’t thrown Kayla, Austin, and me from the chariot.
Did I mention I was grateful for soft sand?
The pegasi took off, dragging the battered chariot into the sky and leaving us stranded.
Chiron galloped to our side, a cluster of demigods in his wake. Percy Jackson ran toward us from the surf while Mrs. O’Leary kept the Colossus occupied with a game of keep-away. I doubt that would hold the statue’s interest very long, once he realized there was a group of targets right behind him, just perfect for stomping.
“The plague arrow is ready!” I announced. “We need to shoot it into the Colossus’s ear!”
My audience did not seem to take this as good news. Then I realized my chariot was gone. My bow was still in the chariot. And Kayla and Austin were quite obviously infected with whatever disease I had conjured up.
“Are they contagious?” Cecil asked.
“No!” I said. “Well…probably not. It’s the fumes from the arrow—”
Everyone backed away from me.
“Cecil,” Chiron said, “you and Harley take Kayla and Austin to the Apollo cabin for healing.”
“But they are the Apollo cabin,” Harley complained. “Besides, my flamethrower—”
“You can play with your flamethrower later,” Chiron promised. “Run along. There’s a good boy. The rest of you, do what you can to keep the Colossus at the water’s edge. Percy and I will assist Apollo.”
Chiron said the word assist as if it meant slap upside the head with extreme prejudice.
Once the crowd had dispersed, Chiron gave me his bow. “Make the shot.”
I stared at the massive composite recursive, which probably had a draw weight of a hundred pounds. “This is meant for the strength of a centaur, not a teen mortal!”
“You created the arrow,” he said. “Only you can shoot it without succumbing to the disease. Only you can hit such a target.”
“From here? It’s impossible! Where is that flying boy, Jason Grace?”
Percy wiped the sweat and sand from his neck. “We’re fresh out of flying boys. And all the pegasi have stampeded.”
“Perhaps if we got some harpies and some kite string…” I said.
“Apollo,” Chiron said, “you must do this. You are the lord of archery and illness.”
“I’m not lord of anything!” I wailed. “I’m a stupid ugly mortal teenager! I’m nobody!”
The self-pity just came pouring out. I thought for sure the earth would split in two when I called myself a nobody. The cosmos would stop turning. Percy and Chiron would rush to reassure me.
None of that happened. Percy and Chiron just stared at me grimly.
Percy put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re Apollo. We need you. You can do this. Besides, if you don’t, I will personally throw you off the top of the Empire State Building.”
This was exactly the pep talk I needed—just the sort of thing Zeus used to say to me before my soccer matches. I squared my shoulders. “Right.”
“We’ll try to draw him into the water,” Percy said. “I’ve got the advantage there. Good luck.”
Percy accepted Chiron’s hand and leaped onto the centaur’s back. Together they galloped into the surf, Percy waving his sword and calling out various bronze-butt-themed insults to the Colossus.
I ran down the beach until I had a line of sight on the statue’s left ear.
Looking up at that regal profile, I did not see Nero. I saw myself—a monument to my own conceit. Nero’s pride was no more than a reflection of mine. I was the bigger fool. I was exactly the sort of person who would construct a hundred-foot-tall naked statue of myself in my front yard.
I pulled the plague arrow from my quiver and nocked it in the bowstring.
The demigods were getting very good at scattering. They continued to harry the Colossus from both sides while Percy and Chiron galloped through the tide, Mrs. O’Leary romping at their heels with her new bronze stick.
“Yo, ugly!” Percy shouted. “Over here!”
The Colossus’s next step displaced several tons of salt water and made a crater large enough to swallow a pickup truck.
The Arrow of Dodona rattled in my quiver. RELEASE THY BREATH, he advised. DROPETH THY SHOULDER.
“I have shot a bow before,” I grumbled.
MINDETH THY RIGHT ELBOW, the arrow said.
AND TELLEST NOT THINE ARROW TO SHUT UP.
I drew the bow. My muscles burned as if boiling water was being poured over my shoulders. The plague arrow did not make me pass out, but its fumes were disorienting. The warp of the shaft made my calculations impossible. The wind was against me. The arc of the shot would be much too high.
Yet I aimed, exhaled, and released the bowstring.
The arrow twirled as it rocketed upward, losing force and drifting too far to the right. My heart sank. Surely the curse of the River Styx would deny me any chance at success.
Just as the projectile reached its apex and was about to fall back to earth, a gust of wind caught it…perhaps Zephyros looking kindly on my pitiful attempt. The arrow sailed into the Colossus’s ear canal and rattled in his head with a clink, clink, clink like a pachinko machine.
The Colossus halted. He stared at the horizon as if confused. He looked at the sky, then arched his back and lurched forward, making a sound like a tornado ripping off the roof of a warehouse. Because his face had no other open orifices, the pressure of his sneeze forced geysers of motor oil out his ears, spraying the dunes with environmentally unfriendly sludge.
Sherman, Julia, and Alice stumbled over to me, covered head to toe with sand and oil.
“I appreciate you freeing Miranda and Ellis,” Sherman snarled, “but I’m going to kill you later for taking my chariot. What did you do to that Colossus? What kind of plague makes you sneeze?”
“I’m afraid I—I summoned a rather benign illness. I believe I have given the Colossus a case of hay fever.”
You know that horrible pause when you’re waiting for someone to sneeze? The statue arched his back again, and everyone on the beach cringed in anticipation. The Colossus inhaled several cubic acres of air through his ear canals, preparing for his next blast.
I imagined the nightmare scenarios: The Colossus would ear-sneeze Percy Jackson into Connecticut, never to be seen again. The Colossus would clear his head and then stomp all of us flat. Hay fever could make a person cranky. I knew this because I invented hay fever. Still, I had never intended it to be a killing affliction. I certainly never anticipated facing the wrath of a towering metal automaton with extreme seasonal allergies. I cursed my shortsightedness! I cursed my mortality!
What I had not considered was the damage our demigods had already done to the Colossus’s metal joints—in particular, his neck.
The Colossus rocked forward with a mighty CHOOOOO! I flinched and almost missed the moment of truth when the statue’s head achieved first-stage separation from his body. It hurtled over Long Island Sound, the face spinning in and out of view. It hit the water with a mighty WHOOSH and bobbed for a moment. Then the air blooped out of its neck hole and the gorgeous regal visage of yours truly sank beneath the waves.
The statue’s decapitated body tilted and swayed. If it had fallen backward, it might have crushed even more of the camp. Instead, it toppled forward. Percy yelped a curse that would have made any Phoenician sailor proud. Chiron and he raced sideways to avoid being crushed while Mrs. O’Leary wisely dissolved into shadows. The Colossus hit the water, sending forty-foot tidal waves to port and starboard. I had never before seen a centaur hang hooves on a tubular crest, but Chiron acquitted himself well.
The roar of the statue’s fall finally stopped echoing off the hills.
Next to me, Alice Miyazawa whistled. “Well, that de-escalated quickly.”
Sherman Yang asked in a voice of childlike wonder: “What the Hades just happened?”
“I believe,” I said, “the Colossus sneezed his head off.”
After the sneezing
Healing peeps, parsing limericks
Worst God Award? Me
THE PLAGUE SPREAD.
That was the price of our victory: a massive outbreak of hay fever. By nightfall, most of the campers were dizzy, groggy, and heavily congested, though I was pleased that none of them sneezed their heads off, because we were running low on bandages and duct tape.
Will Solace and I spent the evening caring for the wounded. Will took the lead, which was fine with me; I was exhausted. Mostly I splinted arms, distributed cold medicine and tissues, and tried to keep Harley from stealing the infirmary’s entire supply of smiley-face stickers, which he plastered all over his flamethrower. I was grateful for the distraction, since it kept me from thinking too much about the day’s painful events.
Sherman Yang graciously agreed not to kill Nico for tossing him out of his chariot, or me for damaging it, though I had the feeling the son of Ares was keeping his options open for later.
Chiron provided healing poultices for the most extreme cases of hay fever. This included Chiara Benvenuti, whose good luck had, for once, abandoned her. Strangely enough, Damien White got sick right after he learned that Chiara was sick. The two had cots next to each other in the infirmary, which I found a little suspicious, even though they kept sniping at each other whenever they knew they were being watched.
Percy Jackson spent several hours recruiting whales and hippocampi to help him haul away the Colossus. He decided it would be easiest to tow it underwater to Poseidon’s palace, where it could be repurposed as garden statuary. I was not sure how I felt about that. I imagined Poseidon would replace the statue’s gorgeous face with his own weathered, bearded mien. Still, I wanted the Colossus gone, and I doubted it would have fit in the camp’s recycling bins.
Thanks to Will’s healing and a hot dinner, the demigods I had rescued from the woods quickly got back to full strength. (Paolo claimed it was because he waved a Brazilian-flag bandana over them, and I was not about to argue.)
As for the camp itself, the damage might have been much worse. The canoe dock could be rebuilt. The Colossus’s footstep craters could be repurposed as convenient foxholes or koi ponds.
The dining pavilion was a total loss, but Nyssa and Harley were confident that Annabeth Chase could redesign the place next time she was here. With luck, it would be rebuilt in time for the summer.
The only other major damage was to the Demeter cabin. I had not realized it during the battle, but the Colossus had managed to step on it before turning around for the beach. In retrospect, its path of destruction appeared almost purposeful, as if the automaton had waded ashore, stomped Cabin Four, and headed back out to sea.
Given what had happened with Meg McCaffrey, I had a hard time not seeing this as a bad omen. Miranda Gardiner and Billie Ng were given temporary bunks in the Hermes cabin, but for a long time that night they sat stunned among the smashed ruins as daisies popped up all around them from the cold winter ground.
Despite my exhaustion, I slept fitfully. I did not mind Kayla and Austin’s constant sneezing, or Will’s gentle snoring. I did not even mind the hyacinths blooming in the windowsill, filling the room with their melancholy perfume. But I could not stop thinking of the dryads raising their arms to the flames in the woods, and about Nero, and Meg. The Arrow of Dodona stayed silent, hanging in my quiver on the wall, but I suspected it would have more annoying Shakespearean advice soon. I did not relish what it might telleth me about my future.
At sunrise, I rose quietly, took my bow and quiver and combat ukulele, and hiked to the summit of Half-Blood Hill. The guardian dragon, Peleus, did not recognize me. When I came too close to the Golden Fleece, he hissed, so I had to sit some distance away at the foot of the Athena Parthenos.
I didn’t mind not being recognized. At the moment, I did not want to be Apollo. All the destruction I saw below me…it was my fault. I had been blind and complacent. I had allowed the emperors of Rome, including one of my own descendants, to rise to power in the shadows. I had let my once-great network of Oracles collapse until even Delphi was lost. I had almost caused the death of Camp Half-Blood itself.
And Meg McCaffrey…Oh, Meg, where were you?
Do what you need to do, she had told me. That’s my final order.
Her order had been vague enough to allow me to pursue her. After all, we were bound together now. What I needed to do was to find her. I wondered if Meg had phrased her order that way on purpose, or if that was just wishful thinking on my part.
I gazed up at the serene alabaster face of Athena. In real life, she didn’t look so pale and aloof—well, not most of the time, anyway. I pondered why the sculptor, Phidias, had chosen to make her look so unapproachable, and whether Athena approved. We gods often debated how much humans could change our very nature simply by the way they pictured us or imagined us. During the eighteenth century, for instance, I could not escape the white powdered wig, no matter how hard I tried. Among immortals, our reliance on humans was an uncomfortable subject.
Perhaps I deserved my present form. After my carelessness and foolishness, perhaps humanity should see me as nothing but Lester Papadopoulos.
I heaved a sigh. “Athena, what would you do in my place? Something wise and practical, I suppose.”
Athena offered no response. She stared calmly at the horizon, taking the long view, as always.
I didn’t need the wisdom goddess to tell me what I must do. I should leave Camp Half-Blood immediately, before the campers woke. They had taken me in to protect me, and I had nearly gotten them all killed. I couldn’t bear to endanger them any longer.
But, oh, how I wanted to stay with Will, Kayla, Austin—my mortal children. I wanted to help Harley put smiley faces on his flamethrower. I wanted to flirt with Chiara and steal her away from Damien…or perhaps steal Damien away from Chiara, I wasn’t sure yet. I wanted to improve my music and archery through that strange activity known as practice. I wanted to have a home.
Leave, I told myself. Hurry.
Because I was a coward, I waited too long. Below me, the cabin lights flickered on. Campers emerged from their doorways. Sherman Yang began his morning stretches. Harley jogged around the green, holding his Leo Valdez beacon high with the hope it would finally work.
At last, a pair of familiar figures spotted me. They approached from different directions—the Big House and Cabin Three—hiking up the hill to see me: Rachel Dare and Percy Jackson.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Rachel said. “Don’t do it.”
I feigned surprise. “Can you read my mind, Miss Dare?”
“I don’t need to. I know you, Lord Apollo.”
A week ago, the idea would have made me laugh. A mortal could not know me. I had lived for four millennia. Merely looking upon my true form would have vaporized any human. Now, though, Rachel’s words seemed perfectly reasonable. With Lester Papadopoulos, what you saw was what you got. There really wasn’t much to know.
“Don’t call me Lord,” I sighed. “I am just a mortal teen. I do not belong at this camp.”
Percy sat next to me. He squinted at the sunrise, the sea breeze tousling his hair. “Yeah, I used to think I didn’t belong here either.”
“It’s not the same,” I said. “You humans change and grow and mature. Gods do not.”
Percy faced me. “You sure about that? You seem pretty different.”
I think he meant that as a compliment, but I didn’t find his words reassuring. If I was becoming more fully human, that was hardly a cause for celebration. True, I had mustered a few godly powers at important moments—a burst of divine strength against the Germani, a hay fever arrow against the Colossus—but I could not rely on those abilities. I didn’t even understand how I had summoned them. The fact that I had limits, and that I couldn’t be sure where those limits were…Well, that made me feel much more like Lester Papadopoulos than Apollo.
“The other Oracles must be found and secured,” I said. “I cannot do that unless I leave Camp Half-Blood. And I cannot risk anyone else’s life.”
Rachel sat on my other side. “You sound certain. Did you get a prophecy from the grove?”
I shuddered. “I fear so.”
Rachel cupped her hands on her knees. “Kayla said you were talking to an arrow yesterday. I’m guessing it’s wood from Dodona?”
“Wait,” Percy said. “You found a talking arrow that gave you a prophecy?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “The arrow talks, but I got the prophecy from the grove itself. The Arrow of Dodona just gives random advice. He’s quite annoying.”
The arrow buzzed in my quiver.
“At any rate,” I continued, “I must leave the camp. The Triumvirate means to possess all the ancient Oracles. I have to stop them. Once I have defeated the former emperors…only then will I be able to face my old enemy Python and free the Oracle of Delphi. After that…if I survive…perhaps Zeus will restore me to Olympus.”
Rachel tugged at a strand of her hair. “You know it’s too dangerous to do all that alone, right?”
“Listen to her,” Percy urged. “Chiron told me about Nero and this weird holding company of his.”
“I appreciate the offer of assistance, but—”