The Hidden Oracle chapter 10

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?”

“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 trotted 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.”

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