The Hidden Oracle chapter 13

Three-legged death race

Five terrible syllables

Oh, gods. Please not Meg

 

IT WAS ALL HARLEY’S FAULT.

 

After addressing the disappearance of Miranda Gardiner—“As a precautionary measure, please stay away from the woods until we know more”—Chiron called forward the young son of Hephaestus to explain how the three-legged death race would work. It quickly became apparent that Harley had masterminded the whole project. And, really, the idea was so horrifying, it could only have sprung from the mind of an eight-year-old boy.

I confess I lost track of the specifics after he explained the exploding chain-saw Frisbees.

“And they’ll be like, ZOOM!” He bounced up and down with excitement. “And then BUZZ! And POW!” He pantomimed all sorts of chaos with his hands. “You have to be really quick or you’ll die, and it’s awesome!”

The other campers grumbled and shifted on their benches.

 

Chiron raised his hand for silence. “Now, I know there were problems last time,” he said, “but fortunately our healers in the Apollo cabin were able to reattach Paolo’s arms.”

 

At a table in back, a muscular teen boy rose and began ranting in what I thought was Portuguese. He wore a white tank top over his dark chest, and I could see faint white scars around the tops of his biceps. Cursing rapidly, he pointed at Harley, the Apollo cabin, and pretty much everyone else.

 

“Ah, thank you, Paolo,” Chiron said, clearly baffled. “I’m glad you are feeling better.” Austin leaned toward me and whispered, “Paolo understands English okay, but he only speaks

Portuguese. At least, that’s what he claims. None of us can understand a word he says.”

 

I didn’t understand Portuguese either. Athena had been lecturing us for years about how Mount Olympus might migrate to Brazil someday, and we should all be prepared for the possibility. She’d even bought the gods Berlitz Portuguese DVDs for Saturnalia presents, but what does Athena know?

 

“Paolo seems agitated,” I noted.

 

Will shrugged. “He’s lucky he’s a fast healer—son of Hebe, goddess of youth, and all that.” “You’re staring,” Nico noted.

 

“I am not,” Will said. “I am merely assessing how well Paolo’s arms are functioning after surgery.” “Hmph.”

 

Paolo finally sat down. Chiron went through a long list of other injuries they had experienced during the first three-legged death race, all of which he hoped to avoid this time: second-degree burns, burst

 

eardrums, a pulled groin, and two cases of chronic Irish step dancing.

 

The lone demigod at the Athena table raised his hand. “Chiron, just going to throw this out there….We’ve had three campers disappear. Is it really wise to be running a dangerous obstacle course?”

 

Chiron gave him a pained smile. “An excellent question, Malcolm, but this course will not take you into the woods, which we believe is the most hazardous area. The satyrs, dryads, and I will continue to investigate the disappearances. We will not rest until our missing campers are found. In the meantime, however, this three-legged race can foster important team-building skills. It also expands our understanding of the Labyrinth.”

 

The word smacked me in the face like Ares’s body odor. I turned to Austin. “The Labyrinth? As in Daedalus’s Labyrinth?”

 

Austin nodded, his fingers worrying the ceramic camp beads around his neck. I had a sudden memory of his mother, Latricia—the way she used to fiddle with her cowry necklace when she lectured at Oberlin. Even I learned things from Latricia Lake’s music theory class, though I had found her distractingly beautiful.

 

“During the war with Gaea,” Austin said, “the maze reopened. We’ve been trying to map it ever since.”

 

“That’s impossible,” I said. “Also insane. The Labyrinth is a malevolent sentient creation! It can’t be mapped or trusted.”

 

As usual, I could only draw on random bits and pieces of my memories, but I was fairly certain I spoke the truth. I remembered Daedalus. Back in the old days, the king of Crete had ordered him to build a maze to contain the monstrous Minotaur. But, oh no, a simple maze wasn’t good enough for a brilliant inventor like Daedalus. He had to make his Labyrinth self-aware and self-expanding. Over the centuries, it had honeycombed under the planet’s surface like an invasive root system.

Stupid brilliant inventors.

 

“It’s different now,” Austin told me. “Since Daedalus died…I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. Doesn’t feel so evil. Not quite as deadly.”

 

“Oh, that’s hugely reassuring. So of course you decided to do three-legged races through it.” Will coughed. “The other thing, Dad…Nobody wants to disappoint Harley.”

I glanced at the head table. Chiron was still holding forth about the virtues of team building while Harley bounced up and down. I could see why the other campers might adopt the boy as their unofficial mascot. He was a cute little pipsqueak, even if he was scarily buff for an eight-year-old. His grin was infectious. His enthusiasm seemed to lift the mood of the entire group. Still, I recognized the mad gleam in his eyes. It was the same look his father, Hephaestus, got whenever he invented some automaton that would later go berserk and start destroying cities.

 

“Also keep in mind,” Chiron was saying, “that none of the unfortunate disappearances has been linked to the Labyrinth. Remain with your partner and you should be safe…at least, as safe as one can be in a three-legged death race.”

 

“Yeah,” Harley said. “Nobody has even died yet.” He sounded disappointed, as if he wanted us to try harder.

 

“In the face of a crisis,” Chiron said, “it’s important to stick to our regular activities. We must stay alert and in top condition. Our missing campers would expect no less from us. Now, as to the teams for the race, you will be allowed to choose your partner—”

 

There followed a sort of piranha attack of campers lunging toward each other to grab their preferred teammate. Before I could contemplate my options, Meg McCaffrey pointed at me from across the pavilion, her expression exactly like Uncle Sam’s in the recruitment poster.

 

Of course, I thought. Why should my luck improve now?

Chiron struck his hoof against the floor. “All right, everyone, settle down! The race will be tomorrow

 

afternoon. Thank you, Harley, for your hard work on the…um, various lethal surprises in store.” “BLAM!” Harley ran back to the Hephaestus table to join his older sister, Nyssa.

“This brings us to our other news,” Chiron said. “As you may have heard, two special newcomers joined us today. First, please welcome the god Apollo!”

 

Normally this was my cue to stand up, spread my arms, and grin as radiant light shone around me. The adoring crowd would applaud and toss flowers and chocolate bonbons at my feet.

This time I received no applause—just nervous looks. I had a strange, uncharacteristic impulse to slide lower in my seat and pull my coat over my head. I restrained myself through heroic effort.

 

Chiron struggled to maintain his smile. “Now, I know this is unusual,” he said, “but gods do become mortal from time to time. You should not be overly alarmed. Apollo’s presence among us could be a good omen, a chance for us to…” He seemed to lose track of his own argument. “Ah…do something good. I’m sure the best course of action will become clear in time. For now, please make Apollo feel at home. Treat him as you would any other new camper.”

 

At the Hermes table, Connor Stoll raised his hand. “Does that mean the Ares cabin should stick Apollo’s head in a toilet?”

 

At the Ares table, Sherman Yang snorted. “We don’t do that to everyone, Connor. Just the newbies who deserve it.”

 

Sherman glanced at Meg, who was obliviously finishing her last hot dog. The wispy black whiskers at the sides of her mouth were now frosted with mustard.

 

Connor Stoll grinned back at Sherman—a conspiratorial look if ever I saw one. That’s when I noticed the open backpack at Connor’s feet. Peeking from the top was something that looked like a net.

 

The implication sank in: two boys whom Meg had humiliated, preparing for payback. I didn’t have to be Nemesis to understand the allure of revenge. Still…I felt an odd desire to warn Meg.

I tried to catch her eye, but she remained focused on her dinner.

“Thank you, Sherman,” Chiron continued. “It’s good to know you won’t be giving the god of archery a swirly. As for the rest of you, we will keep you posted on our guest’s situation. I’m sending two of our finest satyrs, Millard and Herbert”—he gestured to the satyrs on his left—“to hand-deliver a message to Rachel Dare in New York. With any luck, she will be able to join us soon and help determine how we can best assist Apollo.”

 

There was some grumbling about this. I caught the words Oracle and prophecies. At a nearby table, a girl muttered to herself in Italian: The blind leading the blind.

 

I glared at her, but the young lady was quite beautiful. She was perhaps two years older than I (mortally speaking), with dark pixie hair and devastatingly fierce almond eyes. I may have blushed. I turned back to my tablemates. “Um…yes, satyrs. Why not send that other satyr, the friend of

Percy’s?”

 

“Grover?” Nico asked. “He’s in California. The whole Council of Cloven Elders is out there, meeting about the drought.”

 

“Oh.” My spirits fell. I remembered Grover as being quite resourceful, but if he was dealing with California’s natural disasters, he was unlikely to be back anytime in the next decade.

“Finally,” Chiron said, “we welcome a new demigod to camp—Meg McCaffrey!” She wiped her mouth and stood.

 

Next to her, Alice Miyazawa said, “Stand up, Meg.” Julia Feingold laughed.

 

At the Ares table, Sherman Yang rose. “Now this one—this one deserves a special welcome. What do you think, Connor?”

 

Connor reached into his backpack. “I think maybe the canoe lake.” I started to say, “Meg—”

 

Then all Hades broke loose.

 

Sherman Yang strode toward Meg. Connor Stoll pulled out a golden net and threw it over her head. Meg yelped and tried to squirm free, while some of the campers chanted, “Dunk—her! Dunk—her!” Chiron did his best to shout them down: “Now, demigods, wait a moment!”

 

A guttural howl interrupted the proceedings. From the top of the colonnade, a blur of chubby flesh, leafy wings, and linen diaper hurtled downward and landed on Sherman Yang’s back, knocking him face-first into the stone floor. Peaches the karpos stood and wailed, beating his chest. His eyes glowed green with anger. He launched himself at Connor Stoll, locked his plump legs around the demigod’s neck, and began pulling out Connor’s hair with his claws.

 

“Get it off!” Connor wailed, thrashing blindly around the pavilion. “Get it off!” Slowly the other demigods overcame their shock. Several drew swords.

“C’è un karpos!” yelled the Italian girl. “Kill it!” said Alice Miyazawa.

“No!” I cried.

Normally such a command from me would’ve initiated a prison lockdown situation, with all the mortals dropping to their bellies to await my further orders. Alas, now I was a mere mortal with a squeaky adolescent voice.

I watched in horror as my own daughter Kayla nocked an arrow in her bow.

 

“Peaches, get off him!” Meg screamed. She untangled herself from the net, threw it down, then ran toward Connor.

 

The karpos hopped off Connor’s neck. He landed at Meg’s feet, baring his fangs and hissing at the other campers who had formed a loose semicircle with weapons drawn.

 

“Meg, get out of the way,” said Nico di Angelo. “That thing is dangerous.” “No!” Meg’s voice was shrill. “Don’t kill him!”

 

Sherman Yang rolled over, groaning. His face looked worse than it probably was—a gash on the forehead can produce a shocking amount of blood—but the sight steeled the resolve of the other campers. Kayla drew her bow. Julia Feingold unsheathed a dagger.

“Wait!” I pleaded.

 

What happened next, a lesser mind could never have processed. Julia charged. Kayla shot her arrow.

 

Meg thrust out her hands and faint gold light flashed between her fingers. Suddenly young McCaffrey was holding two swords—each a curved blade in the old Thracian style, siccae made from Imperial gold. I had not seen such weapons since the fall of the Rome. They seemed to have appeared from nowhere, but my long experience with magic items told me they must have been summoned from the crescent rings Meg always wore.

 

Both her blades whirled. Meg simultaneously sliced Kayla’s arrow out of the air and disarmed Julia, sending her dagger skittering across the floor.

 

“What the Hades?” Connor demanded. His hair had been pulled out in chunks so he looked like an abused doll. “Who is this kid?”

 

Peaches crouched at Meg’s side, snarling, as Meg fended off the confused and enraged demigods with her two swords.

 

My vision must have been better than the average mortal’s, because I saw the glowing sign first—a light shining above Meg’s head.

 

When I recognized the symbol, my heart turned to lead. I hated what I saw, but I thought I should point it out. “Look.”

 

The others seemed confused. Then the glow became brighter: a holographic golden sickle with a few sheaves of wheat, rotating just above Meg McCaffrey.

 

A boy in the crowd gasped. “She’s a communist!”

 

A girl who’d been sitting at Cabin Four’s table gave him a disgusted sneer. “No, Damien, that’s my mom’s symbol.” Her face went slack as the truth sank in. “Uh, which means…it’s her mom’s symbol.”

 

My head spun. I did not want this knowledge. I did not want to serve a demigod with Meg’s parentage. But now I understood the crescents on Meg’s rings. They were not moons; they were sickle blades. As the only Olympian present, I felt I should make her title official.

 

“My friend is no longer unclaimed,” I announced.

The other demigods knelt in respect, some more reluctantly than others.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, my voice as bitter as Chiron’s tea, “please give it up for Meg McCaffrey, daughter of Demeter.”

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