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The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle

The Hidden Oracle/6

Athena Parthenos shone in all its gold-and-alabaster glory. Once, the massive statue had graced the Parthenon in Greece. Now it presided over Camp Half-Blood, protecting the valley from intruders. Even from here I could feel its power, like the subsonic thrum of a mighty engine. Old Gray Eyes was on the lookout for threats, being her usual vigilant, no-fun, all-business self.

Personally, I would have installed a more interesting statue—of myself, for instance. Still, the panorama of Camp Half-Blood was an impressive sight. My mood always improved when I saw the place—a small reminder of the good old days when mortals knew how to build temples and do proper burnt sacrifices. Ah, everything was better in ancient Greece! Well, except for a few small improvements modern humans had made—the Internet, chocolate croissants, life expectancy.

Meg’s mouth hung open. “How come I’ve never heard about this place? Do you need tickets?”

I chuckled. I always enjoyed the chance to enlighten a clueless mortal. “You see, Meg, magical borders camouflage the valley. From the outside, most humans would spy nothing here except boring farmland. If they approached, they would get turned around and find themselves wandering out again. Believe me, I tried to get a pizza delivered to camp once. It was quite annoying.”

“You ordered a pizza?”

“Never mind,” I said. “As for tickets…it’s true the camp doesn’t let in just anybody, but you’re in luck. I know the management.”

Peaches growled. He sniffed the ground, then chomped a mouthful of dirt and spit it out.

“He doesn’t like the taste of this place,” Meg said.

“Yes, well…” I frowned at the karpos. “Perhaps we can find him some potting soil or fertilizer when we arrive. I’ll convince the demigods to let him in, but it would be helpful if he doesn’t bite their heads off—at least not right away.”

Peaches muttered something about peaches.

“Something doesn’t feel right.” Meg bit her nails. “Those woods…Percy said they were wild and enchanted and stuff.”

I, too, felt as if something was amiss, but I chalked this up to my general dislike of forests. For reasons I’d rather not go into, I find them…uncomfortable places. Nevertheless, with our goal in sight, my usual optimism was returning.

“Don’t worry,” I assured Meg. “You’re traveling with a god!”

“Ex-god.”

“I wish you wouldn’t keep harping on that. Anyway, the campers are very friendly. They’ll welcome us with tears of joy. And wait until you see the orientation video!”

“The what?”

“I directed it myself! Now, come along. The woods can’t be that bad.”


The woods were that bad.

As soon as we entered their shadows, the trees seemed to crowd us. Trunks closed ranks, blocking old paths and opening new ones. Roots writhed across the forest floor, making an obstacle course of bumps, knots, and loops. It was like trying to walk across a giant bowl of spaghetti.

The thought of spaghetti made me hungry. It had only been a few hours since Sally Jackson’s seven-layer dip and sandwiches, but my mortal stomach was already clenching and squelching for food. The sounds were quite annoying, especially while walking through dark scary woods. Even the karpos Peaches was starting to smell good to me, giving me visions of cobbler and ice cream.

As I said earlier, I was generally not a fan of the woods. I tried to convince myself that the trees were not watching me, scowling and whispering among themselves. They were just trees. Even if they had dryad spirits, those dryads couldn’t possibly hold me responsible for what had happened thousands of years ago on a different continent.

Why not? I asked myself. You still hold yourself responsible.

I told myself to stuff a sock in it.

We hiked for hours…much longer than it should have taken to reach the Big House. Normally I could navigate by the sun—which shouldn’t be a surprise, since I spent millennia driving it across the sky—but under the canopy of trees, the light was diffuse, the shadows confusing.

After we passed the same boulder for the third time, I stopped and admitted the obvious. “I have no idea where we are.”

Meg plopped herself down onto a fallen log. In the green light, she looked more like a dryad than ever, though tree spirits do not often wear red sneakers and hand-me-down fleece jackets.

“Don’t you have any wilderness skills?” she asked. “Reading moss on the sides of trees? Following tracks?”

“That’s more my sister’s thing,” I said.

“Maybe Peaches can help.” Meg turned to her karpos. “Hey, can you find us a way out of the woods?”

For the past few miles, the karpos had been muttering nervously, cutting his eyes from side to side. Now he sniffed the air, his nostrils quivering. He tilted his head.

His face flushed bright green. He emitted a distressed bark, then dissolved in a swirl of leaves.

Meg shot to her feet. “Where’d he go?”

I scanned the woods. I suspected Peaches had done the intelligent thing. He’d sensed danger approaching and abandoned us. I didn’t want to suggest that to Meg, though. She’d already become quite fond of the karpos. (Ridiculous, getting attached to a small dangerous creature. Then again, we gods got attached to humans, so I had no room to criticize.)

“Perhaps he went scouting,” I suggested. “Perhaps we should—”

APOLLO.

The voice reverberated in my head, as if someone had installed Bose speakers behind my eyes. It was not the voice of my conscience. My conscience was not female, and it was not that loud. Yet something about the woman’s tone was eerily familiar.

“What’s wrong?” Meg asked.

The air turned sickly sweet. The trees loomed over me like trigger hairs of a Venus flytrap.

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of my face.

“We can’t stay here,” I said. “Attend me, mortal.”

“Excuse me?” Meg said.

“Uh, I mean come on!”

We ran, stumbling over tree roots, fleeing blindly through a maze of branches and boulders. We reached a clear stream over a bed of gravel. I barely slowed down. I waded in, sinking shin-deep into the ice-cold water.

The voice spoke again: FIND ME.

This time it was so loud, it stabbed through my forehead like a railroad spike. I stumbled, falling to my knees.

“Hey!” Meg gripped my arm. “Get up!”

“You didn’t hear that?”

“Hear what?”

THE FALL OF THE SUN, the voice boomed. THE FINAL VERSE.

I collapsed face-first into the stream.

“Apollo!” Meg rolled me over, her voice tight with alarm. “Come on! I can’t carry you!”

Yet she tried. She dragged me across the river, scolding me and cursing until, with her help, I managed to crawl to shore.

I lay on my back, staring wildly at the forest canopy. My soaked clothes were so cold they burned. My body trembled like an open E string on an electric bass.

Meg tugged off my wet winter coat. Her own coat was much too small for me, but she draped the warm dry fleece over my shoulders. “Keep yourself together,” she ordered. “Don’t go crazy on me.”

My own laughter sounded brittle. “But I—I heard—”

THE FIRES WILL CONSUME ME. MAKE HASTE!

The voice splintered into a chorus of angry whispers. Shadows grew longer and darker. Steam rose from my clothes, smelling like the volcanic fumes of Delphi.

Part of me wanted to curl into a ball and die. Part of me wanted to get up and run wildly after the voices—to find their source—but I suspected that if I tried, my sanity would be lost forever.

Meg was saying something. She shook my shoulders. She put her face nose-to-nose with mine so my own derelict reflection stared back at me from the lenses of her cat-eye glasses. She slapped me, hard, and I managed to decipher her words: “GET UP!”

Somehow I did. Then I doubled over and retched.

I hadn’t vomited in centuries. I’d forgotten how unpleasant it was.

The next thing I knew, we were staggering along, Meg bearing most of my weight. The voices whispered and argued, tearing off little pieces of my mind and carrying them away into the forest. Soon I wouldn’t have much left.

There was no point. I might as well wander off into the forest and go insane. The idea struck me as funny. I began to giggle.

Meg forced me to keep walking. I couldn’t understand her words, but her tone was insistent and stubborn, with just enough anger to outweigh her own terror.

In my fractured mental state, I thought the trees were parting for us, grudgingly opening a path straight out of the woods. I saw a bonfire in the distance, and the open meadows of Camp Half-Blood.

It occurred to me that Meg was talking to the trees, telling them to get out of the way. The idea was ridiculous, and at the moment it seemed hilarious. Judging from the steam billowing from my clothes, I guessed I was running a fever of about a hundred and six.

I was laughing hysterically as we stumbled out of the forest, straight toward the campfire where a dozen teenagers sat making s’mores. When they saw us, they rose. In their jeans and winter coats, with assorted weapons at their sides, they were the dourest bunch of marshmallow roasters I had ever seen.

I grinned. “Oh, hi! I’m Apollo!”

My eyes rolled up in my head, and I passed out.





My bus is in flames

My son is older than me

Please, Zeus, make it stop

I DREAMED I WAS DRIVING the sun chariot across the sky. I had the top down in Maserati mode. I was cruising along, honking at jet planes to get out of my way, enjoying the smell of cold stratosphere, and bopping to my favorite jam: Alabama Shakes’ “Rise to the Sun.”

I was thinking about transforming the Spyder into a Google self-driving car. I wanted to get out my lute and play a scorching solo that would make Brittany Howard proud.

Then a woman appeared in my passenger seat. “You’ve got to hurry, man.”

I almost jumped out of the sun.

My guest was dressed like a Libyan queen of old. (I should know. I dated a few of them.) Her gown swirled with red, black, and gold floral designs. Her long dark hair was crowned with a tiara that looked like a curved miniature ladder—two gold rails lined with rungs of silver. Her face was mature but stately, the way a benevolent queen should look.

So definitely not Hera, then. Besides, Hera would never smile at me so kindly. Also…this woman wore a large metal peace symbol around her neck, which did not seem like Hera’s style.

Still, I felt I should know her. Despite the elder-hippie vibe, she was so attractive that I assumed we must be related.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Her eyes flashed a dangerous shade of gold, like a feline predator’s. “Follow the voices.”

A lump swelled in my throat. I tried to think straight, but my brain felt like it had been recently run through a Vitamix. “I heard you in the woods….Were you—were you speaking a prophecy?”

“Find the gates.” She grabbed my wrist. “You’ve gotta find them first, you dig?”

“But—”

The woman burst into flames. I pulled back my singed wrist and grabbed the wheel as the sun chariot plunged into a nosedive. The Maserati morphed into a school bus—a mode I only used when I had to transport a large number of people. Smoke filled the cabin.

Somewhere behind me, a nasal voice said, “By all means, find the gates.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror. Through the smoke, I saw a portly man in a mauve suit. He lounged across the backseat, where the troublemakers normally sat. Hermes was fond of that seat—but this man was not Hermes.

He had a weak jawline, an overlarge nose, and a beard that wrapped around his double chin like a helmet strap. His hair was curly and dark like mine, except not as fashionably tousled or luxuriant. His lip curled as if he smelled something unpleasant. Perhaps it was the burning seats of the bus.

“Who are you?” I yelled, desperately trying to pull the chariot out of its dive. “Why are you on my bus?”

The man smiled, which made his face even uglier. “My own forefather does not recognize me? I’m hurt!”

I tried to place him. My cursed mortal brain was too small, too inflexible. It had jettisoned four thousand years of memories like so much ballast.

“I—I don’t,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

The man laughed as flames licked at his purple sleeves. “You’re not sorry yet, but you will be. Find me the gates. Lead me to the Oracle. I’ll enjoy burning it down!”

Fire consumed me as the sun chariot careened toward the earth. I gripped the wheel and stared in horror as a massive bronze face loomed outside the windshield. It was the face of the man in purple, fashioned from an expanse of metal larger than my bus. As we hurtled toward it, the features shifted and became my own.

Then I woke, shivering and sweating.

“Easy.” Someone’s hand rested on my shoulder. “Don’t try to sit up.”

Naturally I tried to sit up.

My bedside attendant was a young man about my age—my mortal age—with shaggy blond hair and blue eyes. He wore doctor’s scrubs with an open ski jacket, the words OKEMO MOUNTAIN stitched on the pocket. His face had a skier’s tan. I felt I should know him. (I’d been having that sensation a lot since my fall from Olympus.)

I was lying in a cot in the middle of a cabin. On either side, bunk beds lined the walls. Rough cedar beams ribbed the ceiling. The white plaster walls were bare except for a few hooks for coats and weapons.

It could have been a modest abode in almost any age—ancient Athens, medieval France, the farmlands of Iowa. It smelled of clean linen and dried sage. The only decorations were some flowerpots on the windowsill, where cheerful yellow blooms were thriving despite the cold weather outside.

“Those flowers…” My voice was hoarse, as if I’d inhaled the smoke from my dream. “Those are from Delos, my sacred island.”

“Yep,” said the young man. “They only grow in and around Cabin Seven—your cabin. Do you know who I am?”

I studied his face. The calmness of his eyes, the smile resting easily on his lips, the way his hair curled around his ears…I had a vague memory of a woman, an alt-country singer named Naomi Solace, whom I’d met in Austin. I blushed thinking about her even now. To my teenaged self, our romance felt like something that I’d watched in a movie a long ago time—a movie my parents wouldn’t have allowed me to see.

But this boy was definitely Naomi’s son.

Which meant he was my son too.

Which felt very, very strange.

“You’re Will Solace,” I said. “My, ah…erm—”

“Yeah,” Will agreed. “It’s awkward.”

My frontal lobe did a one-eighty inside my skull. I listed sideways.

“Whoa, there.” Will steadied me. “I tried to heal you, but honestly, I don’t understand what’s wrong. You’ve got blood, not ichor. You’re recovering quickly from your injuries, but your vital signs are completely human.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Yeah, well…” He put his hand on my forehead and frowned in concentration. His fingers trembled slightly. “I didn’t know any of that until I tried to give you nectar. Your lips started steaming. I almost killed you.”

“Ah…” I ran my tongue across my bottom lip, which felt heavy and numb. I wondered if that explained my dream about smoke and fire. I hoped so. “I guess Meg forgot to tell you about my condition.”

“I guess she did.” Will took my wrist and checked my pulse. “You seem to be about my age, fifteen or so. Your heart rate is back to normal. Ribs are mending. Nose is swollen, but not broken.”

“And I have acne,” I lamented. “And flab.”

Will tilted his head. “You’re mortal, and that’s what you’re worried about?”

“You’re right. I’m powerless. Weaker even than you puny demigods!”

“Gee, thanks….”

I got the feeling that he almost said Dad but managed to stop himself.

It was difficult to think of this young man as my son. He was so poised, so unassuming, so free of acne. He also didn’t appear to be awestruck in my presence. In fact, the corner of his mouth had started twitching.

“Are—are you amused?” I demanded.

Will shrugged. “Well, it’s either find this funny or freak out. My dad, the god Apollo, is a fifteen-year-old—”

“Sixteen,” I corrected. “Let’s go with sixteen.”

“A sixteen-year-old mortal, lying in a cot in my cabin, and with all my healing arts—which I got from you—I still can’t figure out how to fix you.”

“There is no fixing this,” I said miserably. “I am cast out of Olympus. My fate is tied to a girl named Meg. It could not be worse!”

Will laughed, which I thought took a great deal of gall. “Meg seems cool. She’s already poked Connor Stoll in the eyes and kicked Sherman Yang in the crotch.”

“She did what?”

“She’ll get along just fine here. She’s waiting for you outside—along with most of the campers.” Will’s smile faded. “Just so you’re prepared, they’re asking a lot of questions. Everybody is wondering if your arrival, your mortal situation, has anything to do with what’s been going on at camp.”

I frowned. “What has been going on at camp?”

The cabin door opened. Two more demigods stepped inside. One was a tall boy of about thirteen, his skin burnished bronze and his cornrows woven like DNA helixes. In his black wool peacoat and black jeans, he looked as if he’d stepped from the deck of an eighteenth-century whaling vessel. The other newcomer was a younger girl in olive camouflage. She had a full quiver on her shoulder, and her short ginger hair was dyed with a shock of bright green, which seemed to defeat the point of wearing camouflage.

I smiled, delighted that I actually remembered their names.

“Austin,” I said. “And Kayla, isn’t it?”

Rather than falling to their knees and blubbering gratefully, they gave each other a nervous glance.

“So it’s really you,” Kayla said.

Austin frowned. “Meg told us you were beaten up by a couple of thugs. She said you had no powers and you went hysterical out in the woods.”

My mouth tasted like burnt school bus upholstery. “Meg talks too much.”

“But you’re mortal?” Kayla asked. “As in completely mortal? Does that mean I’m going to lose my archery skills? I can’t even qualify for the Olympics until I’m sixteen!”

“And if I lose my music…” Austin shook his head. “No, man, that’s wrong. My last video got, like, five hundred thousand views in a week. What am I supposed to do?”

It warmed my heart that my children had the right priorities: their skills, their images, their views on YouTube. Say what you will about gods being absentee parents; our children inherit many of our finest personality traits.

“My problems should not affect you,” I promised. “If Zeus went around retroactively yanking my divine power out of all my descendants, half the medical schools in the country would be empty. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would disappear. The Tarot-card reading industry would collapse overnight!”

Austin’s shoulders relaxed. “That’s a relief.”

“So if you die while you’re mortal,” Kayla said, “we won’t disappear?”