The Hidden Oracle chapter 11

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.”

“Oh.” Meg nodded. “That would suck.”

I found it strange that Meg, a street urchin and Dumpster warrior, would relate so well to garden metaphors, but Chiron was an excellent teacher. He had picked up on something about the girl…an impression that had been lurking in the back of my mind as well. I hoped I was wrong about what it meant, but with my luck, I would be right. I usually was.

“So where is Rachel Dare?” I asked. “Perhaps if I spoke with her…?”

 

Chiron set down his tea. “Rachel planned to visit us during her winter vacation, but she never did. It might not mean anything….”

 

I leaned forward. It was not unheard of for Rachel Dare to be late. She was artistic, unpredictable, impulsive, and rule-averse—all qualities I dearly admired. But it wasn’t like her not to show up at all.

“Or?” I asked.

“Or it might be part of the larger problem,” Chiron said. “Prophecies are not the only things that have failed. Travel and communication have become difficult in the last few months. We haven’t heard from our friends at Camp Jupiter in weeks. No new demigods have arrived. Satyrs aren’t reporting from the field. Iris messages no longer work.”

“Iris what?” Meg asked.

 

“Two-way visions,” I said. “A form of communication overseen by the rainbow goddess. Iris has always been flighty….”

 

“Except that normal human communications are also on the fritz,” Chiron said. “Of course, phones have always been dangerous for demigods—”

“Yeah, they attract monsters,” Meg agreed. “I haven’t used a phone in forever.”

“A wise move,” Chiron said. “But recently our phones have stopped working altogether. Mobile, landline, Internet…it doesn’t seem to matter. Even the archaic form of communication known as e-mail is strangely unreliable. The messages simply don’t arrive.”

“Did you look in the junk folder?” I offered.

 

“I fear the problem is more complicated,” Chiron said. “We have no communication with the outside

 

world. We are alone and understaffed. You are the first newcomers in almost two months.” I frowned. “Percy Jackson mentioned nothing of this.”

 

“I doubt Percy is even aware,” Chiron said. “He’s been busy with school. Winter is normally our quietest time. For a while, I was able to convince myself that the communication failures were nothing but an inconvenient happenstance. Then the disappearances started.”

In the fireplace, a log slipped from the andiron. I may or may not have jumped in my seat.

 

“The disappearances, yes.” I wiped drops of tea from my pants and tried to ignore Meg’s snickering. “Tell me about those.”

 

“Three in the last month,” Chiron said. “First it was Cecil Markowitz from the Hermes cabin. One morning his bunk was simply empty. He didn’t say anything about wanting to leave. No one saw him go. And in the past few weeks, no one has seen or heard from him.”

“Children of Hermes do tend to sneak around,” I offered.

 

“At first, that’s what we thought,” said Chiron. “But a week later, Ellis Wakefield disappeared from the Ares cabin. Same story: empty bunk, no signs that he had either left on his own or was…ah, taken. Ellis was an impetuous young man. It was conceivable he might have charged off on some ill-advised adventure, but it made me uneasy. Then this morning we realized a third camper had vanished: Miranda Gardiner, head of the Demeter cabin. That was the worst news of all.”

 

Meg swung her feet off the armrest. “Why is that the worst?”

“Miranda is one of our senior counselors,” Chiron said. “She would never leave on her own without notice. She is too smart to be tricked away from camp, and too powerful to be forced. Yet something happened to her…something I can’t explain.”

 

The old centaur faced me. “Something is very wrong, Apollo. These problems may not be as alarming as the rise of Kronos or the awakening of Gaea, but in a way I find them even more unsettling, because I have never seen anything like this before.”

 

I recalled my dream of the burning sun bus. I thought of the voices I’d heard in the woods, urging me to wander off and find their source.

 

“These demigods…” I said. “Before they disappeared, did they act unusual in any way? Did they report…hearing things?”

Chiron raised an eyebrow. “Not that I am aware of. Why?”

I was reluctant to say more. I didn’t want to cause a panic without knowing what we were facing. When mortals panic, it can be an ugly scene, especially if they expect me to fix the problem.

 

Also, I will admit I felt a bit impatient. We had not yet addressed the most important issues—mine. “It seems to me,” I said, “that our first priority is to bend all the camp’s resources to helping me

regain my divine state. Then I can assist you with these other problems.”

Chiron stroked his beard. “But what if the problems are connected, my friend? What if the only way to restore you to Olympus is by reclaiming the Oracle of Delphi, thus freeing the power of prophecy? What if Delphi is the key to it all?”

 

I had forgotten about Chiron’s tendency to lay out obvious and logical conclusions that I tried to avoid thinking about. It was an infuriating habit.

 

“In my present state, that’s impossible.” I pointed at Meg. “Right now, my job is to serve this demigod, probably for a year. After I’ve done whatever tasks she assigns me, Zeus will judge that my sentence has been served, and I can once again become a god.”

Meg pulled apart a Fig Newton. “I could order you to go to this Delphi place.”

 

“No!” My voice cracked in midshriek. “You should assign me easy tasks—like starting a rock band, or just hanging out. Yes, hanging out is good.”

Meg looked unconvinced. “Hanging out isn’t a task.”

“It is if you do it right. Camp Half-Blood can protect me while I hang out. After my year of servitude

 

is up, I’ll become a god. Then we can talk about how to restore Delphi.” Preferably, I thought, by ordering some demigods to undertake the quest for me.

 

“Apollo,” Chiron said, “if demigods keep disappearing, we may not have a year. We may not have the strength to protect you. And, forgive me, but Delphi is your responsibility.”

 

I tossed up my hands. “I wasn’t the one who opened the Doors of Death and let Python out! Blame Gaea! Blame Zeus for his bad judgment! When the giants started to wake, I drew up a very clear Twenty-Point Plan of Action to Protect Apollo and Also You Other Gods, but he didn’t even read it!”

 

Meg tossed half of her cookie at Seymour’s head. “I still think it’s your fault. Hey, look! He’s awake!” She said this as if the leopard had decided to wake up on his own rather than being beaned in the eye

with a Fig Newton.

“RARR,” Seymour complained.

 

Chiron wheeled his chair back from the table. “My dear, in that jar on the mantel, you’ll find some Snausages. Why don’t you feed him dinner? Apollo and I will wait on the porch.”

We left Meg happily making three-point shots into Seymour’s mouth with the treats.

Once Chiron and I reached the porch, he turned his wheelchair to face me. “She’s an interesting demigod.”

 

Interesting is such a nonjudgmental term.” “She really summoned a karpos?”

“Well…the spirit appeared when she was in trouble. Whether she consciously summoned it, I don’t know. She named him Peaches.”

 

Chiron scratched his beard. “I have not seen a demigod with the power to summon grain spirits in a very long time. You know what it means?”

 

My feet began to quake. “I have my suspicions. I’m trying to stay positive.” “She guided you out of the woods,” Chiron noted. “Without her—”

“Yes,” I said. “Don’t remind me.”

It occurred to me that I’d seen that keen look in Chiron’s eyes before—when he’d assessed Achilles’s sword technique and Ajax’s skill with a spear. It was the look of a seasoned coach scouting new talent. I’d never dreamed the centaur would look at me that way, as if I had something to prove to him, as if my mettle were untested. I felt so…so objectified.

 

“Tell me,” Chiron said, “what did you hear in the woods?”

I silently cursed my big mouth. I should not have asked whether the missing demigods had heard anything strange.

 

I decided it was fruitless to hold back now. Chiron was more perceptive than your average horse-man. I told him what I’d experienced in the forest, and afterward in my dream.

 

His hands curled into his lap blanket. The bottom of it rose higher above his red sequined pumps. He looked about as worried as it is possible for a man to look while wearing fishnet stockings.

 

“We will have to warn the campers to stay away from the forest,” he decided. “I do not understand what is happening, but I still maintain it must be connected to Delphi, and your present…ah, situation. The Oracle must be liberated from the monster Python. We must find a way.”

I translated that easily enough: I must find a way. Chiron must have read my desolate expression.

 

“Come, come, old friend,” he said. “You have done it before. Perhaps you are not a god now, but the first time you killed Python it was no challenge at all! Hundreds of storybooks have praised the way you easily slew your enemy.”

“Yes,” I muttered. “Hundreds of storybooks.”

 

I recalled some of those stories: I had killed Python without breaking a sweat. I flew to the mouth of the cave, called him out, unleashed an arrow, and BOOM!—one dead giant snake monster. I became Lord

 

of Delphi, and we all lived happily ever after.

 

How did storytellers get the idea that I vanquished Python so quickly?

All right…possibly it’s because I told them so. Still, the truth was rather different. For centuries after our battle, I had bad dreams about my old foe.

 

Now I was almost grateful for my imperfect memory. I could not recollect all of the nightmarish details of my fight with Python, but I did know he had been no pushover. I had needed all my godly strength, my divine powers, and the world’s most deadly bow.

 

What chance would I have as a sixteen-year-old mortal with acne, hand-me-down clothes, and the nom de guerre Lester Papadopoulos? I was not going to charge off to Greece and get myself killed, thank you very much, especially not without my sun chariot or the ability to teleport. I’m sorry; gods do not fly commercial.

 

I tried to figure out how to explain this to Chiron in a calm, diplomatic way that did not involve stomping my feet or screaming. I was saved from the effort by the sound of a conch horn in the distance. “That means dinner.” The centaur forced a smile. “We will talk more later, eh? For now, let’s

 

celebrate your arrival.”

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