The Hidden Oracle chapter 14

You’ve got to be kid—

Well, crud, what just happened

there? I ran out of syl—

 

NO ONE KNEW WHAT TO MAKE OF MEG.

 

I couldn’t blame them.

The girl made even less sense to me now that I knew who her mother was.

 

I’d had my suspicions, yes, but I’d hoped to be proven wrong. Being right so much of the time was a terrible burden.

 

Why would I dread a child of Demeter? Good question.

 

Over the past day, I had been doing my best to piece together my remembrances of the goddess. Once Demeter had been my favorite aunt. That first generation of gods could be a stuffy bunch (I’m looking at you, Hera, Hades, Dad), but Demeter had always been a kind and loving presence—except when she was destroying mankind through pestilence and famine, but everyone has their bad days.

 

Then I made the mistake of dating one of her daughters. I think her name was Chrysothemis, but you’ll have to excuse me if I’m wrong. Even when I was a god, I had trouble remembering the names of all my exes. The young woman sang a harvest song at one of my Delphic festivals. Her voice was so beautiful, I fell in love. True, I fell in love with each year’s winner and the runners-up, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a melodious voice.

 

Demeter did not approve. Ever since her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, she’d been a little touchy about her children dating gods.

 

At any rate, she and I had words. We reduced a few mountains to rubble. We laid waste to a few city-states. You know how family arguments can get. Finally we settled into an uneasy truce, but ever since then I’d made a point to steer clear of Demeter’s children.

 

Now here I was—a servant to Meg McCaffrey, the most ragamuffin daughter of Demeter ever to swing a sickle.

 

I wondered who Meg’s father had been to attract the attention of the goddess. Demeter rarely fell in love with mortals. Meg was unusually powerful, too. Most children of Demeter could do little more than make crops grow and keep bacterial fungi at bay. Dual-wielding golden blades and summoning karpoi— that was top-shelf stuff.

 

All of this went through my mind as Chiron dispersed the crowd, urging everyone to put away their weapons. Since head counselor Miranda Gardiner was missing, Chiron asked Billie Ng, the only other

 

camper from Demeter, to escort Meg to Cabin Four. The two girls made a quick retreat, Peaches bouncing along excitedly behind them. Meg shot me a worried look.

 

Not sure what else to do, I gave her two thumbs-up. “See you tomorrow!” She seemed less than encouraged as she disappeared in the darkness.

 

Will Solace tended to Sherman Yang’s head injuries. Kayla and Austin stood over Connor, debating the need for a hair graft. This left me alone to make my way back to the Me cabin.

 

I lay on my sick cot in the middle of the room and stared at the ceiling beams. I thought again about what a depressingly simple, utterly mortal place this was. How did my children stand it? Why did they not keep a blazing altar, and decorate the walls with hammered gold reliefs celebrating my glory?

 

When I heard Will and the others coming back, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I could not face their questions or kindnesses, their attempts to make me feel at home when I clearly did not belong.

 

As they came in the door, they got quiet. “Is he okay?” whispered Kayla.

Austin said, “Would you be, if you were him?” A moment of silence.

“Try to get some sleep, guys,” Will advised.

“This is crazy weird,” Kayla said. “He looks so…human.” “We’ll watch out for him,” Austin said. “We’re all he’s got now.”

I held back a sob. I couldn’t bear their concern. Not being able to reassure them, or even disagree with them, made me feel very small.

 

A blanket was draped over me. Will said, “Sleep well, Apollo.”

 

Perhaps it was his persuasive voice, or the fact that I was more exhausted than I had been in centuries. Immediately, I drifted into unconsciousness.

 

 

Thank the remaining eleven Olympians, I had no dreams.

 

I woke in the morning feeling strangely refreshed. My chest no longer hurt. My nose no longer felt like a water balloon attached to my face. With the help of my offspring (cabin mates—I will call them cabin mates), I managed to master the arcane mysteries of the shower, the toilet, and the sink. The toothbrush was a shock. The last time I was mortal, there had been no such thing. And underarm deodorant—what a ghastly idea that I should need enchanted salve to keep my armpits from producing stench!

 

When I was done with my morning ablutions and dressed in clean clothes from the camp store— sneakers, jeans, an orange Camp Half-Blood T-shirt, and a comfy winter coat of flannel wool—I felt almost optimistic. Perhaps I could survive this human experience.

 

I perked up even more when I discovered bacon.

 

Oh, gods—bacon! I promised myself that once I achieved immortality again, I would assemble the Nine Muses and together we would create an ode, a hymnal to the power of bacon, which would move the heavens to tears and cause rapture across the universe.

Bacon is good.

Yes—that may be the title of the song: “Bacon Is Good.”

 

Seating for breakfast was less formal than dinner. We filled our trays at a buffet line and were allowed to sit wherever we wished. I found this delightful. (Oh, what a sad commentary on my new mortal mind that I, who once dictated the course of nations, should get excited about open seating.) I took my tray and found Meg, who was sitting by herself on the edge of the pavilion’s retaining wall, dangling her feet over the side and watching the waves at the beach.

 

“How are you?” I asked.

 

Meg nibbled on a waffle. “Yeah. Great.”

“You are a powerful demigod, daughter of Demeter.” “Mm-hm.”

 

If I could trust my understanding of human responses, Meg did not seem thrilled. “Your cabin mate, Billie…Is she nice?”

 

“Sure. All good.” “And Peaches?”

She looked at me sideways. “Disappeared overnight. Guess he only shows up when I’m in danger.” “Well, that’s an appropriate time for him to show up.”

 

“Ap-pro-pri-ate.” Meg touched a waffle square for each syllable. “Sherman Yang had to get seven stitches.”

 

I glanced over at Sherman, who sat at a safe distance across the pavilion, glaring daggers at Meg. A nasty red zigzag ran down the side of his face.

 

“I wouldn’t worry,” I told Meg. “Ares’s children like scars. Besides, Sherman wears the Frankenstein look rather well.”

 

The corner of her mouth twitched, but her gaze remained far away. “Our cabin has a grass floor—like, green grass. There’s a huge oak tree in the middle, holding up the ceiling.”

“Is that bad?”

“I have allergies.”

 

“Ah…” I tried to imagine the tree in her cabin. Once upon a time, Demeter had had a sacred grove of oaks. I remembered she’d gotten quite angry when a mortal prince tried to cut it down.

A sacred grove…

Suddenly the bacon in my stomach expanded, wrapping around my organs.

 

Meg gripped my arm. Her voice was a distant buzz. I only heard the last, most important word: “— Apollo?”

I stirred. “What?”

“You blanked out.” She scowled. “I said your name six times.” “You did?”

“Yeah. Where did you go?”

I could not explain. I felt as if I’d been standing on the deck of a ship when an enormous, dark, and dangerous shape passed beneath the hull—a shape almost discernible, then simply gone.

 

“I—I don’t know. Something about trees….” “Trees,” Meg said.

“It’s probably nothing.”

It wasn’t nothing. I couldn’t shake the image from my dreams: the crowned woman urging me to find the gates. That woman wasn’t Demeter—at least, I didn’t think so. But the idea of sacred trees stirred a memory within me…something very old, even by my standards.

 

I didn’t want to talk about this with Meg, not until I’d had time to reflect. She had enough to worry about. Besides, after last night, my new young master made me more apprehensive than ever.

 

I glanced at the rings on her middle fingers. “So yesterday…those swords. And don’t do that thing.” Meg’s eyebrows furrowed. “What thing?”

“That thing where you shut down and refuse to talk. Your face turns to cement.”

She gave me a furious pout. “It does not. I’ve got swords. I fight with them. So what?”

 

“So it might have been nice to know that earlier, when we were in combat with plague spirits.” “You said it yourself: those spirits couldn’t be killed.”

 

“You’re sidestepping.” I knew this because it was a tactic I had mastered centuries ago. “The style

 

you fight in, with two curved blades, is the style of a dimachaerus, a gladiator from the late Roman Empire. Even back then, it was rare—possibly the most difficult fighting style to master, and one of the most deadly.”

 

Meg shrugged. It was an eloquent shrug, but it did not offer much in the way of explanation. “Your swords are Imperial gold,” I said. “That would indicate Roman training, and mark you as a

 

good prospect for Camp Jupiter. Yet your mother is Demeter, the goddess in her Greek form, not Ceres.” “How do you know?”

 

“Aside from the fact that I was a god? Demeter claimed you here at Camp Half-Blood. That was no accident. Also, her older Greek form is much more powerful. You, Meg, are powerful.”

 

Her expression turned so guarded I expected Peaches to hurtle from the sky and start pulling out chunks of my hair.

 

“I never met my mom,” she said. “I didn’t know who she was.” “Then where did you get the swords? Your father?”

 

Meg tore her waffle into tiny pieces. “No….My stepdad raised me. He gave me these rings.” “Your stepfather. Your stepfather gave you rings that turn into Imperial golden swords. What sort of

man—”

“A good man,” she snapped.

I noted the steel in Meg’s voice and let the subject rest. I sensed a great tragedy in her past. Also, I feared that if I pressed my questions, I might find those golden blades at my neck.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

 

“Mm-hm.” Meg tossed a piece of waffle into the air. Out of nowhere, one of the camp’s cleaning harpies swooped down like a two-hundred-pound kamikaze chicken, snatched up the food, and flew away.

 

Meg continued as if nothing had happened. “Let’s just get through today. We’ve got the race after lunch.”

 

A shiver ran down my neck. The last thing I wanted was to be strapped to Meg McCaffrey in the Labyrinth, but I managed to avoid screaming.

 

“Don’t worry about the race,” I said. “I have a plan for how to win it.” She raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

 

“Or rather, I will have a plan by this afternoon. All I need is a little time—” Behind us, the conch horn blew.

 

“Morning boot camp!” Sherman Yang bellowed. “Let’s go, you special snowflakes! I want you all in tears by lunchtime!”

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