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The Hidden Oracle
The Hidden Oracle/25
“Whoa.” Percy held up his hands. “Just to be clear, I’m not offering to go with you. I still have to finish my senior year, pass my DSTOMP and my SAT, and avoid getting killed by my girlfriend. But I’m sure we can get you some other helpers.”
“I’ll go,” Rachel said.
I shook my head. “My enemies would love to capture someone as dear to me as the priestess of Delphi. Besides, I need you and Miranda Gardiner to stay here and study the Grove of Dodona. For now, it is our only source of prophecy. And since our communication problems have not gone away, learning to use the grove’s power is all the more critical.”
Rachel tried to hide it, but I could see her disappointment in the lines around her mouth. “What about Meg?” she asked. “You’ll try to find her, won’t you?”
She might as well have plunged the Arrow of Dodona into my chest. I gazed at the woods—that hazy green expanse that had swallowed young McCaffrey. For a brief moment, I felt like Nero. I wanted to burn the whole place down.
“I will try,” I said, “but Meg doesn’t want to be found. She’s under the influence of her stepfather.”
Percy traced his finger across the Athena Parthenos’s big toe. “I’ve lost too many people to bad influence: Ethan Nakamura, Luke Castellan…We almost lost Nico, too….” He shook his head. “No. No more. You can’t give up on Meg. You guys are bound together. Besides, she’s one of the good guys.”
“I’ve known many of the good guys,” I said. “Most of them got turned into beasts, or statues, or—or trees….” My voice broke.
Rachel put her hand over mine. “Things can turn out differently, Apollo. That’s the nice thing about being human. We only have one life, but we can choose what kind of story it’s going to be.”
That seemed hopelessly optimistic. I had spent too many centuries watching the same patterns of behavior be repeated over and over, all by humans who thought they were being terribly clever and doing something that had never been done before. They thought they were crafting their own stories, but they were only tracing over the same old narratives, generation after generation.
Still…perhaps human persistence was an asset. They never seemed to give up hope. Every so often they did manage to surprise me. I never anticipated Alexander the Great, Robin Hood, or Billie Holiday. For that matter, I never anticipated Percy Jackson and Rachel Elizabeth Dare.
“I—I hope you’re right,” I said.
She patted my hand. “Tell me the prophecy you heard in the grove.”
I took a shaky breath. I didn’t want to speak the words. I was afraid they might wake the grove and drown us in a cacophony of prophecies, bad jokes, and infomercials. But I recited the lines:
“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”
Rachel covered her mouth. “A limerick?”
“I know!” I wailed. “I’m doomed!”
“Wait.” Percy’s eyes glittered. “Those lines…Do they mean what I think?”
“Well,” I said, “I believe the blue cave refers to the Oracle of Trophonius. It was a…a very dangerous ancient Oracle.”
“No,” Percy said. “The other lines. Three-seater, bronze fire-eater, yadda yadda.”
“Oh. I have no clue about those.”
“Harley’s beacon.” Percy laughed, though I could not understand why he was so pleased. “He said you gave it a tuning adjustment? I guess that did the trick.”
Rachel squinted at him. “Percy, what are you…” Her expression went slack. “Oh. Oh.”
“Were there any other lines?” Percy urged. “Like, except for the limerick?”
“Several,” I admitted. “Just bits and pieces I didn’t understand. The fall of the sun; the final verse. Um, Indiana, banana. Happiness approaches. Something about pages burning.”
Percy slapped his knee. “There you go. Happiness approaches. Happy is a name—well, the English version, anyway.” He stood and scanned the horizon. His eyes fixed on something in the distance. A grin spread across his face. “Yep. Apollo, your escort is on the way.”
I followed his gaze. Spiraling down from the clouds was a large winged creature that glinted of Celestial bronze. On its back were two human-size figures.
Their descent was silent, but in my mind a joyous fanfare of Valdezinator music proclaimed the good news.
Leo had returned.
Want to hit Leo?
That is understandable
Hunk Muffin earned it
THE DEMIGODS HAD TO TAKE NUMBERS.
Nico commandeered a dispenser from the snack bar and carried it around, yelling, “The line starts to the left! Orderly queue, guys!”
“Is this really necessary?” Leo asked.
“Yes,” said Miranda Gardiner, who had drawn the first number. She punched Leo in the arm.
“Ow,” said Leo.
“You’re a jerk, and we all hate you,” said Miranda. Then she hugged him and kissed his cheek. “If you ever disappear like that again, we’ll line up to kill you.”
Miranda had to move on, because the line was getting pretty long behind her. Percy and I sat at the picnic table with Leo and his companion—none other than the immortal sorceress Calypso. Even though Leo was the one getting punched by everyone in camp, I was reasonably sure he was the least uncomfortable one at the table.
When they first saw each other, Percy and Calypso had hugged awkwardly. I hadn’t witnessed such a tense greeting since Patroclus met Achilles’s war prize, Briseis. (Long story. Juicy gossip. Ask me later.) Calypso had never liked me, so she pointedly ignored me, but I kept waiting for her to yell “BOO!” and turn me into a tree frog. The suspense was killing me.
Percy hugged Leo and didn’t even punch him. Still, the son of Poseidon looked disgruntled.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Six months—”
“I told you,” Leo said. “We tried sending more holographic scrolls. We tried Iris messages, dream visions, phone calls. Nothing worked.—Ow! Hey, Alice, how you doing?—Anyway, we ran into one crisis after another.”
Calypso nodded. “Albania was particularly difficult.”
From down the line, Nico di Angelo yelled, “Please do not mention Albania! Okay, who’s next, folks? One line.”
Damien White punched Leo’s arm and walked away grinning. I wasn’t sure Damien even knew Leo. He simply couldn’t turn down a chance to punch someone.
Leo rubbed his bicep. “Hey, no fair. That guy’s getting back in the line. So, like I was saying, if Festus hadn’t picked up on that homing beacon yesterday, we’d still be flying around, looking for a way out of the Sea of Monsters.”
“Oh, I hate that place,” Percy said. “There’s this big Cyclops, Polyphemus—”
“I know, right?” Leo agreed. “What is up with that guy’s breath?”
“Boys,” Calypso said, “perhaps we should focus on the present?”
She did not look at me, but I got the impression she meant this silly former god and his problems.
“Yeah,” Percy said. “So the communication issues…Rachel Dare thinks it’s got something to do with this company, Triumvirate.”
Rachel herself had gone to the Big House to fetch Chiron, but Percy did a reasonable job summarizing what she had found out about the emperors and their evil corporation. Of course, we didn’t know very much. By the time six more people had punched Leo in the arm, Percy had brought Leo and Calypso up to speed.
Leo rubbed his new bruises. “Man, why does it not surprise me that modern corporations are run by zombie Roman emperors?”
“They are not zombies,” I said. “And I’m not sure they run all corporations—”
Leo waved away my explanation. “But they’re trying to take over the Oracles.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“And that’s bad.”
“So you need our help.—Ow! Hey, Sherman. Where’d you get the new scar, dude?”
While Sherman told Leo the story of Crotchkicker McCaffrey and the Demon Peach Baby, I glanced at Calypso.
She looked very different from what I remembered. Her hair was still long and caramel brown. Her almond-shaped eyes were still dark and intelligent. But now, instead of a chiton she wore modern jeans, a white blouse, and a shocking-pink ski jacket. She looked younger—about my mortal age. I wondered if she had been punished with mortality for leaving her enchanted island. If so, it didn’t seem fair that she had retained her otherworldly beauty. She had neither flab nor acne.
As I watched, she stretched two fingers toward the opposite end of the picnic table, where a pitcher of lemonade sweated in the sunlight. I had seen her do this sort of thing before, willing her invisible aerial servants to whisk objects into her hands. This time, nothing happened.
A look of disappointment crossed her face. Then she realized I was watching. Her cheeks colored.
“Since leaving Ogygia, I have no powers,” she admitted. “I am fully mortal. I keep hoping, but—”
“You want a drink?” Percy asked.
“I got it.” Leo beat him to the pitcher.
I had not expected to feel sympathy for Calypso. We’d had harsh words in the past. A few millennia ago, I had opposed her petition for early release from Ogygia because of some…ah, drama between us. (Long story. Juicy gossip. Please do not ask me later.)
Still, as a fallen god, I understood how disconcerting it was to be without one’s powers.
On the other hand, I was relieved. This meant she could not turn me into a tree frog or order her aerial servants to toss me off the Athena Parthenos.
“Here you go.” Leo handed her a glass of lemonade. His expression seemed darker and more anxious, as if…Ah, of course. Leo had rescued Calypso from her prison island. In doing so, Calypso had lost her powers. Leo felt responsible.
Calypso smiled, though her eyes were still touched by melancholy. “Thank you, babe.”
“Babe?” Percy asked.
Leo’s expression brightened. “Yeah. She won’t call me Hunk Muffin, though. I dunno why.—Ow!”
It was Harley’s turn. The little boy punched Leo, then threw his arms around him and broke down sobbing.
“Hey, brother.” Leo ruffled his hair and had the good sense to look ashamed. “You brought me home with that beacon of yours, H-Meister. You’re a hero! You know I never would’ve left you hanging like that on purpose, don’t you?”
Harley wailed and sniffled and nodded. Then he punched Leo again and ran away. Leo looked like he was about to get sick. Harley was quite strong.
“At any rate,” Calypso said, “these problems with the Roman emperors—how can we help?”
I raised my eyebrows. “You will help me, then? Despite…ah, well, I always knew you were kindhearted and forgiving, Calypso. I meant to visit you at Ogygia more often—”
“Spare me.” Calypso sipped her lemonade. “I’ll help you if Leo decides to help you, and he seems to have some affection for you. Why, I can’t imagine.”
I let go of the breath I had been holding for…oh, an hour. “I’m grateful. Leo Valdez, you have always been a gentleman and a genius. After all, you created the Valdezinator.”
Leo grinned. “I did, didn’t I? I suppose that was pretty awesome. So where is this next Oracle you—Ow!”
Nyssa had made it to the front of the line. She slapped Leo, then berated him in rapid Spanish.
“Yeah, okay, okay.” Leo rubbed his face. “Dang, hermana, I love you, too!”
He turned his attention back to me. “So this next Oracle, you said it was where?”
Percy tapped the picnic table. “Chiron and I were talking about this. He figures this triumvirate thingie…they probably divided America into three parts, with one emperor in charge of each. We know Nero is holed up in New York, so we’re guessing this next Oracle is in the second dude’s territory, maybe in the middle third of the U.S.”
“Oh, the middle third of the U.S.!” Leo spread his arms. “Piece of torta, then. We’ll just search the entire middle of the country!”
“Still with the sarcasm,” Percy noted.
“Hey, man, I’ve sailed with the most sarcastic scalawags on the high seas.”
The two gave each other a high five, though I did not quite understand why. I thought about a snippet of prophecy I’d heard in the grove: something about Indiana. It might be a place to start….
The last person to come through the line was Chiron himself, pushed in his wheelchair by Rachel Dare. The old centaur gave Leo a warm, fatherly smile. “My boy, I am so pleased to have you back. And you freed Calypso, I see. Well done, and welcome, both of you!” Chiron spread his arms for a hug.
“Uh, thanks, Chiron.” Leo leaned forward.
From underneath Chiron’s lap blanket, his equine foreleg shot out and implanted a hoof in Leo’s gut. Then, just as quickly, the leg disappeared. “Mr. Valdez,” Chiron said in the same kindly tone, “if you ever pull a stunt like that again—”
“I got it, I got it!” Leo rubbed his stomach. “Dang, for a teacher, you got a heck of a high kick.”
Rachel grinned and wheeled Chiron away. Calypso and Percy helped Leo to his feet.
“Yo, Nico,” Leo called, “please tell me that’s it for the physical abuse.”
“For now.” Nico smiled. “We’re still trying to get in touch with the West Coast. You’ll have a few dozen people out there who will definitely want to hit you.”
Leo winced. “Yeah, that’s something to look forward to. Well, I guess I’d better keep my strength up. Where do you guys eat lunch now that the Colossus stepped on the dining pavilion?”
Percy left that night just before dinner.
I expected a moving one-on-one farewell, during which he would ask my advice about test taking, being a hero, and living life in general. After he lent me his help in defeating the Colossus, it would have been the least I could do.
Instead, he seemed more interested in saying good-bye to Leo and Calypso. I wasn’t part of their conversation, but the three of them seemed to reach some sort of mutual understanding. Percy and Leo embraced. Calypso even pecked Percy on the cheek. Then the son of Poseidon waded into Long Island Sound with his extremely large dog and they both disappeared underwater. Did Mrs. O’Leary swim? Did she travel through the shadows of whales? I did not know.
Like lunch, dinner was a casual affair. As darkness fell, we ate on picnic blankets around the hearth, which blazed with Hestia’s warmth and kept away the winter chill. Festus the dragon sniffed around the perimeter of the cabins, occasionally blowing fire into the sky for no apparent reason.
“He got a little dinged up in Corsica,” Leo explained. “Sometimes he spews randomly like that.”
“He hasn’t blowtorched anyone important yet,” Calypso added, her eyebrow arched. “We’ll see how he likes you.”
Festus’s red jewel eyes gleamed in the darkness. After driving the sun chariot for so long, I wasn’t nervous about riding a metal dragon, but when I thought about what we’d be riding toward, geraniums bloomed in my stomach.
“I had planned to go alone,” I told them. “The prophecy from Dodona speaks of the bronze fire-eater, but…it feels wrong for me to ask you to risk your lives. You have been through so much just to get here.”
Calypso tilted her head. “Perhaps you have changed. That does not sound like the Apollo I remember. You definitely are not as handsome.”
“I am still quite handsome,” I protested. “I just need to clear up this acne.”
She smirked. “So you haven’t completely lost your big head.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Guys,” Leo interrupted, “if we’re going to travel together, let’s try to keep it friendly.” He pressed an ice pack to his bruised bicep. “Besides, we were planning to head west anyway. I got to find my peeps Jason and Piper and Frank and Hazel and…well, pretty much everybody at Camp Jupiter, I guess. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun?” I asked. “The Oracle of Trophonius will supposedly swallow me in death and madness. Even if I survive that, my other trials will no doubt be long, harrowing, and quite possibly fatal.”
“Exactly,” Leo said. “Fun. I don’t know about calling the whole quest thing Apollo’s trials, though. I think we should call it Leo Valdez’s Victory Lap World Tour.”
Calypso laughed and laced her fingers in Leo’s. She may not have been immortal anymore, but she still had a grace and easiness about her that I could not fathom. Perhaps she missed her powers, but she seemed genuinely happy to be with Valdez—to be young and mortal, even if it meant she could die at any moment.
Unlike me, she had chosen to become mortal. She knew that leaving Ogygia was a risk, but she had done it willingly. I didn’t know how she’d found the courage.
“Hey, man,” Leo told me. “Don’t look so glum. We’ll find her.”
I stirred. “What?”
“Your friend Meg. We’ll find her. Don’t worry.”
A bubble of darkness burst inside me. For once, I hadn’t been thinking of Meg. I’d been thinking about myself, and that made me feel guilty. Perhaps Calypso was right to question whether or not I’d changed.
I gazed at the silent forest. I remembered Meg dragging me to safety when I was cold and soaked and delirious. I remembered how fearlessly she fought the myrmekes, and how she’d ordered Peaches to extinguish the match when Nero wanted to burn his hostages, despite her fear of unleashing the Beast. I had to make her realize how evil Nero was. I had to find her. But how?
“Meg knows the prophecy,” I said. “If she tells Nero, he will know our plans as well.”
Calypso took a bite of her apple. “I missed the whole Roman Empire. How bad can one emperor be?”
“Bad,” I assured her. “And he is allied with two others. We don’t know which ones, but it’s safe to assume they are equally cutthroat. They’ve had centuries to amass fortunes, acquire property, build armies…Who knows what they are capable of?”
“Eh,” Leo said. “We took down Gaea in, like, forty seconds. This’ll be easy squeezy.”
I seemed to recall that the lead-up to the fight with Gaea had involved months of suffering and near misses with death. Leo, in fact, had died. I also wanted to remind him that the Triumvirate might well have orchestrated all our previous troubles with the Titans and giants, which would make them more powerful than anything Leo had ever faced.
I decided that mentioning these things might affect group morale.
“We’ll succeed,” Calypso said. “We must. So we will. I have been trapped on an island for thousands of years. I don’t know how long this mortal life will be, but I intend to live fully and without fear.”
“That’s my mamacita,” Leo said.
“What have I told you about calling me mamacita?”
Leo grinned sheepishly. “In the morning we’ll start getting our supplies together. As soon as Festus gets a tune-up and an oil change, we’ll be good to go.”
I considered what supplies I would take with me. I had depressingly little: some borrowed clothes, a bow, a ukulele, and an overly theatrical arrow.
But the real difficulty would be saying good-bye to Will, Austin, and Kayla. They had helped me so much, and they embraced me as family more than I had ever embraced them. Tears stung my eyes. Before I could start sobbing, Will Solace stepped into the light of the hearth. “Hey, everybody! We’ve started a bonfire in the amphitheater! Sing-along time. Come on!”
Groans were mixed in with the cheers, but most everyone got to their feet and ambled toward the bonfire now blazing in the distance, where Nico di Angelo stood silhouetted in the flames, preparing rows of marshmallows on what looked like