The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle/4

Any other skills we should know about? Summoning lightning? Making toilets explode?”

Meg smiled hesitantly. “That’s not a power.”

“Sure it is,” Percy said. “Some of the best demigods have gotten their start by blowing up toilets.”

Meg giggled.

I did not like the way she was grinning at Percy. I didn’t want the girl to develop a crush. We might never get out of here. As much as I enjoyed Sally Jackson’s cooking—the divine smell of baking cookies was even now wafting from the kitchen—I needed to make haste to camp.

“Ahem.” I rubbed my hands. “How soon can we leave?”

Percy glanced at the wall clock. “Right now, I guess. If you’re being followed, I’d rather have monsters on our trail than sniffing around the apartment.”

“Good man,” I said.

Percy gestured with distaste at his test manuals. “I just have to be back tonight. Got a lot of studying. The first two times I took the SAT—ugh. If it wasn’t for Annabeth helping me out—”

“Who’s that?” Meg asked.

“My girlfriend.”

Meg frowned. I was glad there were no garbage bags nearby for her to throw.

“So take a break!” I urged. “Your brain will be refreshed after an easy drive to Long Island.”

“Huh,” Percy said. “There’s a lazy kind of logic to that. Okay. Let’s do it.”

He rose just as Sally Jackson walked in with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. For some reason, the cookies were blue, but they smelled heavenly—and I should know. I’m from heaven.

“Mom, don’t freak,” Percy said.

Sally sighed. “I hate it when you say that.”

“I’m just going to take these two to camp. That’s all. I’ll be right back.”

“I think I’ve heard that before.”

“I promise.”

Sally looked at me, then Meg. Her expression softened, her innate kindness perhaps overweighing her concern. “All right. Be careful. It was lovely meeting you both. Please try not to die.”

Percy kissed her on the cheek. He reached for the cookies, but she moved the plate away.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Apollo and Meg can have one, but I’m keeping the rest hostage until you’re back safely. And hurry, dear. It would be a shame if Paul ate them all when he gets home.”

Percy’s expression turned grim. He faced us. “You hear that, guys? A batch of cookies is depending on me. If you get me killed on the way to camp, I am going be ticked off.”

Aquaman driving

Couldn’t possibly be worse

Oh, wait, now it is

MUCH TO MY DISAPPOINTMENT, the Jacksons did not have a spare bow or quiver to lend me.

“I suck at archery,” Percy explained.

“Yes, but I don’t,” I said. “This is why you should always plan for my needs.”

Sally lent Meg and me some proper winter fleece jackets, however. Mine was blue, with the word BLOFIS written inside the neckline. Perhaps that was an arcane ward against evil spirits. Hecate would have known. Sorcery really wasn’t my thing.

Once we reached the Prius, Meg called shotgun, which was yet another example of my unfair existence. Gods do not ride in the back. I again suggested following them in a Maserati or a Lamborghini, but Percy admitted he had neither. The Prius was the only car his family owned.

I mean…wow. Just wow.

Sitting in the backseat, I quickly became carsick. I was used to driving my sun chariot across the sky, where every lane was the fast lane. I was not used to the Long Island Expressway. Believe me, even at midday in the middle of January, there is nothing express about your expressways.

Percy braked and lurched forward. I sorely wished I could launch a fireball in front of us and melt cars to make way for our clearly more important journey.

“Doesn’t your Prius have flamethrowers?” I demanded. “Lasers? At least some Hephaestian bumper blades? What sort of cheap economy vehicle is this?”

Percy glanced in the rearview mirror. “You have rides like that on Mount Olympus?”

“We don’t have traffic jams,” I said. “That, I can promise you.”

Meg tugged at her crescent moon rings. Again I wondered if she had some connection to Artemis. The moon was my sister’s symbol. Perhaps Artemis had sent Meg to look after me?

Yet that didn’t seem right. Artemis had trouble sharing anything with me—demigods, arrows, nations, birthday parties. It’s a twin thing. Also, Meg McCaffrey did not strike me as one of my sister’s followers. Meg had another sort of aura…one I would have been able to recognize easily if I were a god. But, no. I had to rely on mortal intuition, which was like trying to pick up sewing needles while wearing oven mitts.

Meg turned and gazed out the rear windshield, probably checking for any shiny blobs pursuing us. “At least we’re not being—”

“Don’t say it,” Percy warned.

Meg huffed. “You don’t know what I was going to—”

“You were going to say, ‘At least we’re not being followed,’” Percy said. “That’ll jinx us. Immediately we’ll notice that we are being followed. Then we’ll end up in a big battle that totals my family car and probably destroys the whole freeway. Then we’ll have to run all the way to camp.”

Meg’s eyes widened. “You can tell the future?”

“Don’t need to.” Percy changed lanes to one that was crawling slightly less slowly. “I’ve just done this a lot. Besides”—he shot me an accusing look—“nobody can tell the future anymore. The Oracle isn’t working.”

“What Oracle?” Meg asked.

Neither of us answered. For a moment, I was too stunned to speak. And believe me, I have to be very stunned for that to happen.

“It still isn’t working?” I said in a small voice.

“You didn’t know?” Percy asked. “I mean, sure, you’ve been out of it for six months, but this happened on your watch.”

That was unjust. I had been busy hiding from Zeus’s wrath at the time, which was a perfectly legitimate excuse. How was I to know that Gaea would take advantage of the chaos of war and raise my oldest, greatest enemy from the depths of Tartarus so he could take possession of his old lair in the cave of Delphi and cut off the source of my prophetic power?

Oh, yes, I hear you critics out there: You’re the god of prophecy, Apollo. How could you not know that would happen?

The next sound you hear will be me blowing you a giant Meg-McCaffrey-quality raspberry.

I swallowed back the taste of fear and seven-layer dip. “I just…I assumed—I hoped this would be taken care of by now.”

“You mean by demigods,” Percy said, “going on a big quest to reclaim the Oracle of Delphi?”

“Exactly!” I knew Percy would understand. “I suppose Chiron just forgot. I’ll remind him when we get to camp, and he can dispatch some of you talented fodder—I mean heroes—”

“Well, here’s the thing,” Percy said. “To go on a quest, we need a prophecy, right? Those are the rules. If there’s no Oracle, there are no prophecies, so we’re stuck in a—”

“A Catch-88.” I sighed.

Meg threw a piece of lint at me. “It’s a Catch-22.”

“No,” I explained patiently. “This is a Catch-88, which is four times as bad.”

I felt as if I were floating in a warm bath and someone had pulled out the stopper. The water swirled around me, tugging me downward. Soon I would be left shivering and exposed, or else I would be sucked down the drain into the sewers of hopelessness. (Don’t laugh. That’s a perfectly fine metaphor. Also, when you’re a god, you can get sucked down a drain quite easily—if you’re caught off guard and relaxed, and you happen to change form at the wrong moment. Once I woke up in a sewage treatment facility in Biloxi, but that’s another story.)

I was beginning to see what was in store for me during my mortal sojourn. The Oracle was held by hostile forces. My adversary lay coiled and waiting, growing stronger every day on the magical fumes of the Delphic caverns. And I was a weak mortal bound to an untrained demigod who threw garbage and chewed her cuticles.

No. Zeus could not possibly expect me to fix this. Not in my present condition.

And yet…someone had sent those thugs to intercept me in the alley. Someone had known where I would land.

Nobody can tell the future anymore, Percy had said.

But that wasn’t quite true.

“Hey, you two.” Meg hit us both with pieces of lint. Where was she finding this lint?

I realized I’d been ignoring her. It had felt good while it lasted.

“Yes, sorry, Meg,” I said. “You see, the Oracle of Delphi is an ancient—”

“I don’t care about that,” she said. “There are three shiny blobs now.”

“What?” Percy asked.

She pointed behind us. “Look.”

Weaving through the traffic, closing in on us rapidly, were three glittery, vaguely humanoid apparitions—like billowing plumes from smoke grenades touched by King Midas.

“Just once I’d like an easy commute,” Percy grumbled. “Everybody, hold on. We’re going cross-country.”

Percy’s definition of cross-country was different from mine.

I envisioned crossing an actual countryside. Instead, Percy shot down the nearest exit ramp, wove across the parking lot of a shopping mall, then blasted through the drive-through of a Mexican restaurant without even ordering anything. We swerved into an industrial area of dilapidated warehouses, the smoking apparitions still closing in behind us.

My knuckles turned white on my seat belt’s shoulder strap. “Is your plan to avoid a fight by dying in a traffic accident?” I demanded.

“Ha-ha.” Percy yanked the wheel to the right. We sped north, the warehouses giving way to a hodgepodge of apartment buildings and abandoned strip malls. “I’m getting us to the beach. I fight better near water.”

“Because Poseidon?” Meg asked, steadying herself against the door handle.

“Yep,” Percy agreed. “That pretty much describes my entire life: Because Poseidon.”

Meg bounced up and down with excitement, which seemed pointless to me, since we were already bouncing quite a lot.

“You’re gonna be like Aquaman?” she asked. “Get the fish to fight for you?”

“Thanks,” Percy said. “I haven’t heard enough Aquaman jokes for one lifetime.”

“I wasn’t joking!” Meg protested.

I glanced out the rear window. The three glittering plumes were still gaining. One of them passed through a middle-aged man crossing the street. The mortal pedestrian instantly collapsed.

“Ah, I know these spirits!” I cried. “They are…um…”

My brain clouded over.

“What?” Percy demanded. “They are what?”

“I’ve forgotten! I hate being mortal! Four thousand years of knowledge, the secrets of the universe, a sea of wisdom—lost, because I can’t contain it all in this teacup of a head!”

“Hold on!” Percy flew through a railroad crossing and the Prius went airborne. Meg yelped as her head hit the ceiling. Then she began giggling uncontrollably.

The landscape opened into actual countryside—fallow fields, dormant vineyards, orchards of bare fruit trees.

“Just another mile or so to the beach,” Percy said. “Plus we’re almost to the western edge of camp. We can do it. We can do it.”

Actually, we couldn’t. One of the shiny smoke clouds pulled a dirty trick, pluming from the pavement directly in front of us.

Instinctively, Percy swerved.

The Prius went off the road, straight through a barbed wire fence and into an orchard. Percy managed to avoid hitting any of the trees, but the car skidded in the icy mud and wedged itself between two trunks. Miraculously, the air bags did not deploy.

Percy popped his seat belt. “You guys okay?”

Meg shoved against her passenger-side door. “Won’t open. Get me out of here!”

Percy tried his own door. It was firmly jammed against the side of a peach tree.

“Back here,” I said. “Climb over!”

I kicked my door open and staggered out, my legs feeling like worn shock absorbers.

The three smoky figures had stopped at the edge of the orchard. Now they advanced slowly, taking on solid shapes. They grew arms and legs. Their faces formed eyes and wide, hungry mouths.

I knew instinctively that I had dealt with these spirits before. I couldn’t remember what they were, but I had dispelled them many times, swatting them into oblivion with no more effort than I would a swarm of gnats.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a god now. I was a panicky sixteen-year-old. My palms sweated. My teeth chattered. My only coherent thought was: YIKES!

Percy and Meg struggled to get out of the Prius. They needed time, which meant I had to run interference.

“STOP!” I bellowed at the spirits. “I am the god Apollo!”

To my pleasant surprise, the three spirits stopped. They hovered in place about forty feet away.

I heard Meg grunt as she tumbled out of the backseat. Percy scrambled after her.

I advanced toward the spirits, the frosty mud crunching under my shoes. My breath steamed in the cold air. I raised my hand in an ancient three-fingered gesture for warding off evil.

“Leave us or be destroyed!” I told the spirits. “BLOFIS!”

The smoky shapes trembled. My hopes lifted. I waited for them to dissipate or flee in terror.

Instead, they solidified into ghoulish corpses with yellow eyes. Their clothes were tattered rags, their limbs covered with gaping wounds and running sores.

“Oh, dear.” My Adam’s apple dropped into my chest like a billiard ball. “I remember now.”

Percy and Meg stepped to either side of me. With a metallic shink, Percy’s pen grew into a blade of glowing Celestial bronze.

“Remember what?” he asked. “How to kill these things?”

“No,” I said. “I remember what they are: nosoi, plague spirits. Also…they can’t be killed.”

Tag with plague spirits

You’re it, and you’re infectious

Have fun with that, LOL

“NOSOI?” PERCY PLANTED HIS FEET in a fighting stance. “You know, I keep thinking, I have now killed every single thing in Greek mythology. But the list never seems to end.”

“You haven’t killed me yet,” I noted.

“Don’t tempt me.”

The three nosoi shuffled forward. Their cadaverous mouths gaped. Their tongues lolled. Their eyes glistened with a film of yellow mucus.

“These creatures are not myths,” I said. “Of course, most things in those old myths are not myths. Except for that story about how I flayed the satyr Marsyas alive. That was a total lie.”

Percy glanced at me. “You did what?”

“Guys.” Meg picked up a dead tree branch. “Could we talk about that later?”

The middle plague spirit spoke. “Apollooooo…” His voice gurgled like a seal with bronchitis. “We have coooome to—”

“Let me stop you right there.” I crossed my arms and feigned arrogant indifference. (Difficult for me, but I managed.) “You’ve come to take your revenge on me, eh?” I looked at my demigod friends. “You see, nosoi are the spirits of disease. Once I was born, spreading illnesses became part of my job. I use plague arrows to strike down naughty populations with smallpox, athlete’s foot, that sort of thing.”

“Gross,” Meg said.

“Somebody’s got to do it!” I said. “Better a god, regulated by the Council of Olympus and with the proper health permits, than a horde of uncontrolled spirits like these.”

The spirit on the left gurgled. “We’re trying to have a moooment here. Stop interrupting! We wish to be free, uncontroooolled—”

“Yes, I know. You’ll destroy me. Then you’ll spread every known malady across the world. You’ve been wanting to do that ever since Pandora let you out of that jar. But you can’t. I will strike you down!”

Perhaps you are wondering how I could act so confident and calm. In fact, I was terrified. My sixteen-year-old mortal instincts were screaming, RUN! My knees were knocking together, and my right eye had developed a nasty twitch. But the secret to dealing with plague spirits was to keep talking so as to appear in charge and unafraid. I trusted that this would allow my demigod companions time to come up with a clever plan to save me. I certainly hoped Meg and Percy were working on such a plan.

The spirit on the right bared his rotten teeth. “What will you strike us down with? Where is your booow?”

“It appears to be missing,” I agreed. “But is it really? What if it’s cleverly hidden under this Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and I am about to whip it out and shoot you all?”

The nosoi shuffled nervously.

“Yooou lie,” said the one in the middle.

Percy cleared his throat. “Um, hey, Apollo…”

Finally! I thought.

“I know what you’re going to say,” I told him. “You and Meg have come up with a clever plan to hold off these spirits while I run away to camp. I hate to see you sacrifice yourselves, but—”

“That’s not what I was going to say.” Percy raised his blade. “I was going to ask what happens if I just slice and dice these mouth-breathers with Celestial bronze.”

The middle spirit chortled, his yellow eyes gleaming. “A sword is such a small weapon. It does not have the pooooetry of a good epidemic.”

“Stop right there!” I said. “You can’t claim both my plagues and my poetry!”

“You are right,” said the spirit. “Enough wooooords.”

The three corpses shambled forward. I thrust out my arms, hoping to blast them to dust. Nothing happened.

“This is insufferable!” I complained. “How do demigods do it without an auto-win power?”

Meg jabbed her tree branch into the nearest spirit’s chest. The branch stuck. Glittering smoke began swirling down the length of the wood.

“Let go!” I warned. “Don’t let the nosoi touch you!”

Meg released the branch and scampered away.

Meanwhile, Percy Jackson charged into battle. He swung his sword, dodging the