The hidden oracle, p.7
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       The Hidden Oracle, p.7
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         Part #1 of The Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan

  “Guys,” Will interrupted, “why don’t you run to the Big House and tell Chiron that our…our patient is conscious. I’ll bring him along in a minute. And, uh, see if you can disperse the crowd outside, okay? I don’t want everybody rushing Apollo at once.”

  Kayla and Austin nodded sagely. As my children, they no doubt understood the importance of controlling the paparazzi.

  As soon as they were gone, Will gave me an apologetic smile. “They’re in shock. We all are. It’ll take some time to get used to…whatever this is.”

  “You do not seem shocked,” I said.

  Will laughed under his breath. “I’m terrified. But one thing you learn as head counselor: you have to keep it together for everyone else. Let’s get you on your feet.”

  It was not easy. I fell twice. My head spun, and my eyes felt as if they were being microwaved in their sockets. Recent dreams continued to churn in my brain like river silt, muddying my thoughts—the woman with the crown and the peace symbol, the man in the purple suit. Lead me to the Oracle. I’ll enjoy burning it down!

  The cabin began to feel stifling. I was anxious to get some fresh air.

  One thing my sister Artemis and I agree on: every worthwhile pursuit is better outdoors than indoors. Music is best played under the dome of heaven. Poetry should be shared in the agora. Archery is definitely easier outside, as I can attest after that one time I tried target practice in my father’s throne room. And driving the sun…well, that’s not really an indoor sport either.

  Leaning on Will for support, I stepped outside. Kayla and Austin had succeeded in shooing the crowd away. The only one waiting for me—oh, joy and happiness—was my young overlord, Meg, who had apparently now gained fame at camp as Crotchkicker McCaffrey.

  She still wore Sally Jackson’s hand-me-down green dress, though it was a bit dirtier now. Her leggings were ripped and torn. On her bicep, a line of butterfly bandages closed a nasty cut she must have gotten in the woods.

  She took one look at me, scrunched up her face, and stuck out her tongue. “You look yuck.”

  “And you, Meg,” I said, “are as charming as ever.”

  She adjusted her glasses until they were just crooked enough to be annoying. “Thought you were going to die.”

  “Glad to disappoint you.”

  “Nah.” She shrugged. “You still owe me a year of service. We’re bound, whether you like it or not!”

  I sighed. It was ever so wonderful to be back in Meg’s company.

  “I suppose I should thank you….” I had a hazy memory of my delirium in the forest, Meg carrying me along, the trees seeming to part before us. “How did you get us out of the woods?”

  Her expression turned guarded. “Dunno. Luck.” She jabbed a thumb at Will Solace. “From what he’s been telling me, it’s a good thing we got out before nightfall.”

  “Why?”

  Will started to answer, then apparently thought better of it. “I should let Chiron explain. Come on.”

  I rarely visited Camp Half-Blood in winter. The last time had been three years ago, when a girl named Thalia Grace crash-landed my bus in the canoe lake.

  I expected the camp to be sparsely populated. I knew most demigods only came for the summer, leaving a small core of year-rounders during the school term—those who for various reasons found camp the only safe place they could live.

  Still, I was struck by how few demigods I saw. If Cabin Seven was any indication, each god’s cabin could hold beds for about twenty campers. That meant a maximum capacity of four hundred demigods—enough for several phalanxes or one really amazing yacht party.

  Yet, as we walked across camp, I saw no more than a dozen people. In the fading light of sunset, a lone girl was scaling the climbing wall as lava flowed down either side. At the lake, a crew of three checked the rigging on the trireme.

  Some campers had found reasons to be outside just so they could gawk at me. Over by the hearth, one young man sat polishing his shield, watching me in its reflective surface. Another fellow glared at me as he spliced barbed wire outside the Ares cabin. From the awkward way he walked, I assumed he was Sherman Yang of the recently kicked crotch.

  In the doorway of the Hermes cabin, two girls giggled and whispered as I passed. Normally this sort of attention wouldn’t have fazed me. My magnetism was understandably irresistible. But now my face burned. Me—the manly paragon of romance—reduced to a gawky, inexperienced boy!

  I would have screamed at the heavens for this unfairness, but that would’ve been super-embarrassing.

  We made our way through the fallow strawberry fields. Up on Half-Blood Hill, the Golden Fleece glinted in the lowest branch of a tall pine tree. Whiffs of steam rose from the head of Peleus, the guardian dragon coiled around the base of the trunk. Next to the tree, the Athena Parthenos looked angry red in the sunset. Or perhaps she just wasn’t happy to see me. (Athena had never gotten over our little tiff during the Trojan War.)

  Halfway down the hillside, I spotted the Oracle’s cave, its entrance shrouded by thick burgundy curtains. The torches on either side stood unlit—usually a sign that my prophetess, Rachel Dare, was not in residence. I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.

  Even when she was not channeling prophecies, Rachel was a wise young lady. I had hoped to consult her about my problems. On the other hand, since her prophetic power had apparently stopped working (which I suppose in some small part was my fault), I wasn’t sure Rachel would want to see me. She would expect explanations from her Main Man, and while I had invented mansplaining and was its foremost practitioner, I had no answers to give her.

  The dream of the flaming bus stayed with me: the groovy crowned woman urging me to find the gates, the ugly mauve-suited man threatening to burn the Oracle.

  Well…the cave was right there. I wasn’t sure why the woman in the crown was having such trouble finding it, or why the ugly man would be so intent on burning its “gates,” which amounted to nothing more than purple curtains.

  Unless the dream was referring to something other than the Oracle of Delphi….

  I rubbed my throbbing temples. I kept reaching for memories that weren’t there, trying to plunge into my vast lake of knowledge only to find it had been reduced to a kiddie pool. You simply can’t do much with a kiddie pool brain.

  On the porch of the Big House, a dark-haired young man was waiting for us. He wore faded black trousers, a Ramones T-shirt (bonus points for musical taste), and a black leather bomber jacket. At his side hung a Stygian iron sword.

  “I remember you,” I said. “Is it Nicholas, son of Hades?”

  “Nico di Angelo.” He studied me, his eyes sharp and colorless, like broken glass. “So it’s true. You’re completely mortal. There’s an aura of death around you—a thick possibility of death.”

  Meg snorted. “Sounds like a weather forecast.”

  I did not find this amusing. Being face-to-face with a son of Hades, I recalled the many mortals I had sent to the Underworld with my plague arrows. It had always seemed like good clean fun—meting out richly deserved punishments for wicked deeds. Now, I began to understand the terror in my victims’ eyes. I did not want an aura of death hanging over me. I definitely did not want to stand in judgment before Nico di Angelo’s father.

  Will put his hand on Nico’s shoulder. “Nico, we need to have another talk about your people skills.”

  “Hey, I’m just stating the obvious. If this is Apollo, and he dies, we’re all in trouble.”

  Will turned to me. “I apologize for my boyfriend.”

  Nico rolled his eyes. “Could you not—”

  “Would you prefer special guy?” Will asked. “Or significant other?”

  “Significant annoyance, in your case,” Nico grumbled.

  “Oh, I’ll get you for that.”

  Meg wiped her dripping nose. “You guys fight a lot. I thought we were going to see a centaur.”

  “And here I am.” The screen door opened. Chiron trotte
d out, ducking his head to avoid the doorframe.

  From the waist up, he looked every bit the professor he often pretended to be in the mortal world. His brown wool jacket had patches on the elbows. His plaid dress shirt did not quite match his green tie. His beard was neatly trimmed, but his hair would have failed the tidiness inspection required for a proper rat’s nest.

  From the waist down, he was a white stallion.

  My old friend smiled, though his eyes were stormy and distracted. “Apollo, it’s good you are here. We need to talk about the disappearances.”

  Check your spam folder

  The prophecies might be there

  No? Well, I’m stumped. Bye

  MEG GAWKED. “He—he really is a centaur.”

  “Well spotted,” I said. “I suppose the lower body of a horse is what gave him away?”

  She punched me in the arm.

  “Chiron,” I said, “this is Meg McCaffrey, my new master and wellspring of aggravation. You were saying something about disappearances?”

  Chiron’s tail flicked. His hooves clopped on the planks of the porch.

  He was immortal, yet his visible age seemed to vary from century to century. I did not remember his whiskers ever being so gray, or the lines around his eyes so pronounced. Whatever was happening at camp must not have been helping his stress levels.

  “Welcome, Meg.” Chiron tried for a friendly tone, which I thought quite heroic, seeing as…well, Meg. “I understand you showed great bravery in the woods. You brought Apollo here despite many dangers. I’m glad to have you at Camp Half-Blood.”

  “Thanks,” said Meg. “You’re really tall. Don’t you hit your head on light fixtures?”

  Chiron chuckled. “Sometimes. If I want to be closer to human size, I have a magical wheelchair that allows me to compact my lower half into…Actually, that’s not important now.”

  “Disappearances,” I prompted. “What has disappeared?”

  “Not what, but who,” Chiron said. “Let’s talk inside. Will, Nico, could you please tell the other campers we’ll gather for dinner in one hour? I’ll give everyone an update then. In the meantime, no one should roam the camp alone. Use the buddy system.”

  “Understood.” Will looked at Nico. “Will you be my buddy?”

  “You are a dork,” Nico announced.

  The two of them strolled off bickering.

  At this point, you may be wondering how I felt seeing my son with Nico di Angelo. I’ll admit I did not understand Will’s attraction to a child of Hades, but if the dark foreboding type was what made Will happy…

  Oh. Perhaps some of you are wondering how I felt seeing him with a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend. If that’s the case, please. We gods are not hung up about such things. I myself have had…let’s see, thirty-three mortal girlfriends and eleven mortal boyfriends? I’ve lost count. My two greatest loves were, of course, Daphne and Hyacinthus, but when you’re a god as popular as I am—

  Hold on. Did I just tell you who I liked? I did, didn’t I? Gods of Olympus, forget I mentioned their names! I am so embarrassed. Please don’t say anything. In this mortal life, I’ve never been in love with anyone!

  I am so confused.

  Chiron led us into the living room, where comfy leather couches made a V facing the stone fireplace. Above the mantel, a stuffed leopard head was snoring contentedly.

  “Is it alive?” Meg asked.

  “Quite.” Chiron trotted over to his wheelchair. “That’s Seymour. If we speak quietly, we should be able to avoid waking him.”

  Meg immediately began exploring the living room. Knowing her, she was searching for small objects to throw at the leopard to wake him up.

  Chiron settled into his wheelchair. He placed his rear legs into the false compartment of the seat, then backed up, magically compacting his equine hindquarters until he looked like a man sitting down. To complete the illusion, hinged front panels swung closed, giving him fake human legs. Normally those legs were fitted with slacks and loafers to augment his “professor” disguise, but today it seemed Chiron was going for a different look.

  “That’s new,” I said.

  Chiron glanced down at his shapely female mannequin legs, dressed in fishnet stockings and red sequined high heels. He sighed heavily. “I see the Hermes cabin have been watching Rocky Horror Picture Show again. I will have to have a chat with them.”

  Rocky Horror Picture Show brought back fond memories. I used to cosplay as Rocky at the midnight showings, because, naturally, the character’s perfect physique was based on my own.

  “Let me guess,” I said. “Connor and Travis Stoll are the pranksters?”

  From a nearby basket, Chiron grabbed a flannel blanket and spread it over his fake legs, though the ruby shoes still peeked out at the bottom. “Actually, Travis went off to college last autumn, which has mellowed Connor quite a bit.”

  Meg looked over from the old Pac-Man arcade game. “I poked that guy Connor in the eyes.”

  Chiron winced. “That’s nice, dear….At any rate, we have Julia Feingold and Alice Miyazawa now. They have taken up pranking duty. You’ll meet them soon enough.”

  I recalled the girls who had been giggling at me from the Hermes cabin doorway. I felt myself blushing all over again.

  Chiron gestured toward the couches. “Please sit.”

  Meg moved on from Pac-Man (having given the game twenty seconds of her time) and began literally climbing the wall. Dormant grapevines festooned the dining area—no doubt the work of my old friend Dionysus. Meg scaled one of the thicker trunks, trying to reach the Gorgon-hair chandelier.

  “Ah, Meg,” I said, “perhaps you should watch the orientation film while Chiron and I talk?”

  “I know plenty,” she said. “I talked to the campers while you were passed out. ‘Safe place for modern demigods.’ Blah, blah, blah.”

  “Oh, but the film is very good,” I urged. “I shot it on a tight budget in the 1950s, but some of the camera work was revolutionary. You should really—”

  The grapevine peeled away from the wall. Meg crashed to the floor. She popped up completely unscathed, then spotted a platter of cookies on the sideboard. “Are those free?”

  “Yes, child,” Chiron said. “Bring the tea as well, would you?”

  So we were stuck with Meg, who draped her legs over the couch’s armrest, chomped on cookies, and threw crumbs at Seymour’s snoring head whenever Chiron wasn’t looking.

  Chiron poured me a cup of Darjeeling. “I’m sorry Mr. D is not here to welcome you.”

  “Mr. Dee?” Meg asked.

  “Dionysus,” I explained. “The god of wine. Also the director of this camp.”

  Chiron handed me my tea. “After the battle with Gaea, I thought Mr. D might return to camp, but he never did. I hope he’s all right.”

  The old centaur looked at me expectantly, but I had nothing to share. The last six months were a complete void; I had no idea what the other Olympians might be up to.

  “I don’t know anything,” I admitted. I hadn’t said those words very often in the last four millennia. They tasted bad. I sipped my tea, but that was no less bitter. “I’m a bit behind on the news. I was hoping you could fill me in.”

  Chiron did a poor job hiding his disappointment. “I see….”

  I realized he had been hoping for help and guidance—the exact same things I needed from him. As a god, I was used to lesser beings relying on me—praying for this and pleading for that. But now that I was mortal, being relied upon was a little terrifying.

  “So what is your crisis?” I asked. “You have the same look Cassandra had in Troy, or Jim Bowie at the Alamo—as if you’re under siege.”

  Chiron did not dispute the comparison. He cupped his hands around his tea.

  “You know that during the war with Gaea, the Oracle of Delphi stopped receiving prophecies. In fact, all known methods of divining the future suddenly failed.”

  “Because the original cave of Delphi was retaken,” I
said with a sigh, trying not to feel picked on.

  Meg bounced a chocolate chip off Seymour the leopard’s nose. “Oracle of Delphi. Percy mentioned that.”

  “Percy Jackson?” Chiron sat up. “Percy was with you?”

  “For a time.” I recounted our battle in the peach orchard and Percy’s return to New York. “He said he would drive out this weekend if he could.”

  Chiron looked disheartened, as if my company alone wasn’t good enough. Can you imagine?

  “At any rate,” he continued, “we hoped that once the war was over, the Oracle might start working again. When it did not…Rachel became concerned.”

  “Who’s Rachel?” Meg asked.

  “Rachel Dare,” I said. “The Oracle.”

  “Thought the Oracle was a place.”

  “It is.”

  “Then Rachel is a place, and she stopped working?”

  Had I still been a god, I would have turned her into a blue-belly lizard and released her into the wilderness never to be seen again. The thought soothed me.

  “The original Delphi was a place in Greece,” I told her. “A cavern filled with volcanic fumes, where people would come to receive guidance from my priestess, the Pythia.”

  “Pythia.” Meg giggled. “That’s a funny word.”

  “Yes. Ha-ha. So the Oracle is both a place and a person. When the Greek gods relocated to America back in…what was it, Chiron, 1860?”

  Chiron seesawed his hand. “More or less.”

  “I brought the Oracle here to continue speaking prophecies on my behalf. The power has passed down from priestess to priestess over the years. Rachel Dare is the present Oracle.”

  From the cookie platter, Meg plucked the only Oreo, which I had been hoping to have myself. “Mm-kay. Is it too late to watch that movie?”

  “Yes,” I snapped. “Now, the way I gained possession of the Oracle of Delphi in the first place was by killing this monster called Python who lived in the depths of the cavern.”

  “A python like the snake,” Meg said.

  “Yes and no. The snake species is named after Python the monster, who is also rather snaky, but who is much bigger and scarier and devours small girls who talk too much. At any rate, last August, while I was…indisposed, my ancient foe Python was released from Tartarus. He reclaimed the cave of Delphi. That’s why the Oracle stopped working.”

  “But if the Oracle is in America now, why does it matter if some snake monster takes over its old cave?”

  That was about the longest sentence I had yet heard her speak. She’d probably done it just to spite me.

  “It’s too much to explain,” I said. “You’ll just have to—”

  “Meg.” Chiron gave her one of his heroically tolerant smiles. “The original site of the Oracle is like the deepest taproot of a tree. The branches and leaves of prophecy may extend across the world, and Rachel Dare may be our loftiest branch, but if the taproot is strangled, the whole tree is endangered. With Python back in residence at his old lair, the spirit of the Oracle has been completely blocked.”

  “Oh.” Meg made a face at me. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

  Before I could strangle her like the annoying taproot she was, Chiron refilled my teacup.

  “The larger problem,” he said, “is that we have no other source of prophecies.”

  “Who cares?” Meg asked. “So you don’t know the future. Nobody knows the future.”

  “Who cares?!” I shouted. “Meg McCaffrey, prophecies are the catalysts for every important event—every quest or battle, disaster or miracle, birth or death. Prophecies don’t simply foretell the future. They shape it! They allow the future to happen.”

  “I don’t get it.”

  Chiron cleared his throat. “Imagine prophecies are flower seeds. With the right seeds, you can grow any garden you desire. Without seeds, no growth is possible.”

 
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