The Hidden Oracle chapter 15

Practice makes perfect

Ha, ha, ha, I don’t think so

Ignore my sobbing

 

I WISHED I HAD A DOCTOR’S NOTE. I wanted to be excused from PE.

 

Honestly, I will never understand you mortals. You try to maintain good physical shape with push-ups, sit-ups, five-mile runs, obstacle courses, and other hard work that involves sweating. All the while, you know it is a losing battle. Eventually your weak, limited-use bodies will deteriorate and fail, giving you wrinkles, sagging parts, and old-person breath.

 

It’s horrific! If I want to change shape, or age, or gender, or species, I simply wish it to happen and

 

ka-bam!—I am a young, large, female three-toed sloth. No amount of push-ups will accomplish that. I simply don’t see the logic in your constant struggles. Exercise is nothing more than a depressing reminder that one is not a god.

 

By the end of Sherman Yang’s boot camp, I was gasping and drenched in sweat. My muscles felt like quivering columns of gelatinous dessert.

 

I did not feel like a special snowflake (though my mother, Leto, always assured me I was one), and I was sorely tempted to accuse Sherman of not treating me as such.

 

I grumbled about this to Will. I asked where the old head counselor of Ares had gone. Clarisse La Rue I could at least charm with my dazzling smile. Alas, Will reported she was attending the University of Arizona. Oh, why does college have to happen to perfectly good people?

After the torture, I staggered back to my cabin and took another shower. Showers are good. Perhaps not as good as bacon, but good.

 

My second morning session was painful for a different reason. I was assigned to music lessons in the amphitheater with a satyr named Woodrow.

 

Woodrow seemed nervous to have me join his little class. Perhaps he had heard the legend about my skinning the satyr Marsyas alive after he challenged me to a music contest. (As I said, the flaying part was totally untrue, but rumors do have amazing staying power, especially when I may have been guilty of spreading them.)

 

Using his panpipe, Woodrow reviewed the minor scales. Austin had no problem with these, even though he was challenging himself by playing the violin, which was not his instrument. Valentina Diaz, a daughter of Aphrodite, did her best to throttle a clarinet, producing sounds like a basset hound whimpering in a thunderstorm. Damien White, son of Nemesis, lived up to his namesake by wreaking vengeance on an acoustic guitar. He played with such force that he broke the D string.

 

“You killed it!” said Chiara Benvenuti. She was the pretty Italian girl I’d noticed the night before—a child of Tyche, goddess of good fortune. “I needed to use that guitar!”

 

“Shut up, Lucky,” Damien muttered. “In the real world, accidents happen. Strings snap sometimes.” Chiara unleashed some rapid-fire Italian that I decided not to translate.

“May I?” I reached for the guitar.

Damien reluctantly handed it over. I leaned toward the guitar case by Woodrow’s feet. The satyr leaped several inches into the air.

Austin laughed. “Relax, Woodrow. He’s just getting another string.”

I’ll admit I found the satyr’s reaction gratifying. If I could still scare satyrs, perhaps there was hope for me reclaiming some of my former glory. From here I could work my way up to scaring farm animals, then demigods, monsters, and minor deities.

 

In a matter of seconds, I had replaced the string. It felt good to do something so familiar and simple. I adjusted the pitch, but stopped when I realized Valentina was sobbing.

 

“That was so beautiful!” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “What was that song?” I blinked. “It’s called tuning.”

 

“Yeah, Valentina, control yourself,” Damien chided, though his eyes were red. “It wasn’t that beautiful.”

“No.” Chiara sniffled. “It wasn’t.”

Only Austin seemed unaffected. His eyes shone with what looked like pride, though I didn’t understand why he would feel that way.

 

I played a C minor scale. The B string was flat. It’s always the B string. Three thousand years since I invented the guitar (during a wild party with the Hittites—long story), and I still couldn’t figure out how to make a B string that stays in tune.

I ran through the other scales, delighted that I still remembered them.

 

“Now this is a Lydian progression,” I said. “It starts on the fourth of the major scale. They say it’s called Lydian after the old kingdom of Lydia, but actually, I named it for an old girlfriend of mine, Lydia. She was the fourth woman I dated that year, so…”

 

I looked up mid-arpeggio. Damien and Chiara were weeping in each other’s arms, hitting each other weakly and cursing, “I hate you. I hate you.”

 

Valentina lay on the amphitheater bench, silently shaking. Woodrow was pulling apart his panpipes. “I’m worthless!” he sobbed. “Worthless!”

Even Austin had a tear in his eye. He gave me a thumbs-up.

I was thrilled that some of my old skill remained intact, but I imagined Chiron would be annoyed if I drove the entire music class into major depression.

 

I pulled the D string slightly sharp—a trick I used to use to keep my adoring fans from exploding in rapture at my concerts. (And I mean literally exploding. Some of those gigs at the Fillmore in the 1960s… well, I’ll spare you the gruesome details.)

 

I strummed a chord that was intentionally out of tune. To me it sounded awful, but the campers stirred from their misery. They sat up, wiped their tears, and watched in fascination as I played a simple one-four-five progression.

 

“Yeah, man.” Austin brought his violin to his chin and began to improvise. His resin bow danced across the strings. He and I locked eyes, and for a moment we were more than family. We became part of the music, communicating on a level only gods and musicians will ever understand.

Woodrow broke the spell.

 

“That’s amazing,” the satyr sobbed. “You two should be teaching the class. What was I thinking? Please don’t flay me!”

“My dear satyr,” I said, “I would never—”

 

Suddenly, my fingers spasmed. I dropped the guitar in surprise. The instrument tumbled down the stone steps of the amphitheater, clanging and sproinging.

 

Austin lowered his bow. “You okay?” “I…yes, of course.”

 

But I was not okay. For a few moments, I had experienced the bliss of my formerly easy talent. Yet, clearly, my new mortal fingers were not up to the task. My hand muscles were sore. Red lines dug into my finger pads where I had touched the fret board. I had overextended myself in other ways, too. My lungs felt shriveled, drained of oxygen, even though I had done no singing.

“I’m…tired,” I said, dismayed.

“Well, yeah.” Valentina nodded. “The way you were playing was unreal!”

 

“It’s okay, Apollo,” Austin said. “You’ll get stronger. When demigods use their powers, especially at first, they get tired quickly.”

“But I’m not…”

I couldn’t finish the sentence. I wasn’t a demigod. I wasn’t a god. I wasn’t even myself. How could I ever play music again, knowing that I was a flawed instrument? Each note would bring me nothing but pain and exhaustion. My B string would never be in tune.

My misery must have shown on my face.

 

Damien White balled his fists. “Don’t you worry, Apollo. It’s not your fault. I’ll make that stupid guitar pay for this!”

 

I didn’t try to stop him as he marched down the stairs. Part of me took perverse satisfaction in the way he stomped the guitar until it was reduced to kindling and wires.

 

Chiara huffed. “Idiota! Now I’ll never get my turn!” Woodrow winced. “Well, um…thanks, everyone! Good class!”

 

 

Archery was an even bigger travesty.

 

If I ever become a god again (no, not if; when, when), my first act will be to wipe the memories of everyone who saw me embarrass myself in that class. I hit one bull’s-eye. One. The grouping on my other shots was abysmal. Two arrows actually hit outside the black ring at a mere one hundred meters. I threw down my bow and wept with shame.

 

Kayla was our class instructor, but her patience and kindness only made me feel worse. She scooped up my bow and offered it back to me.

 

“Apollo,” she said, “those shots were fantastic. A little more practice and—” “I’m the god of archery!” I wailed. “I don’t practice!”

Next to me, the daughters of Nike snickered.

They had the insufferably appropriate names Holly and Laurel Victor. They reminded me of the gorgeous, ferociously athletic African nymphs Athena used to hang out with at Lake Tritonis.

 

“Hey, ex-god,” Holly said, nocking an arrow, “practice is the only way to improve.” She scored a seven on the red ring, but she did not seem at all discouraged.

“For you, maybe,” I said. “You’re a mortal!”

Her sister, Laurel, snorted. “So are you now. Suck it up. Winners don’t complain.” She shot her arrow, which landed next to her sister’s but just inside the red ring. “That’s why I’m better than Holly. She’s always complaining.”

“Yeah, right,” Holly growled. “The only thing I complain about is how lame you are.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” said Laurel. “Let’s go. Right now. Best two out of three shots. The loser scrubs the toilets for a month.”

“You’re on!”

 

Just like that, they forgot about me. They definitely would’ve made excellent Tritonian nymphs. Kayla took me by the arm and led me downrange. “Those two, I swear. We made them Nike co-counselors so they’d compete with each other. If we hadn’t, they would’ve taken over the camp by now

and proclaimed a dictatorship.”

I suppose she was trying to cheer me up, but I was not consoled.

I stared at my fingers, now blistered from archery as well as sore from guitar. Impossible. Agonizing. “I can’t do this, Kayla,” I muttered. “I’m too old to be sixteen again!”

 

Kayla cupped her hand over mine. Beneath the green shock of her hair, she had a ginger complexion— like cream painted over copper, the auburn sheen peeking through in the freckles of her face and arms. She reminded me very much of her father, the Canadian archery coach Darren Knowles.

 

I mean her other father. And, yes, of course it’s possible for a demigod child to spring from such a relationship. Why not? Zeus gave birth to Dionysus out of his own thigh. Athena once had a child who was created from a handkerchief. Why should such things surprise you? We gods are capable of infinite marvels.

 

Kayla took a deep breath, as if preparing for an important shot. “You can do it, Dad. You’re already good. Very good. You’ve just got to adjust your expectations. Be patient; be brave. You’ll get better.”

 

I was tempted to laugh. How could I get used to being merely good? Why would I strain myself to get better when before I had been divine?

 

“No,” I said bitterly. “No, it is too painful. I swear upon the River Styx—until I am a god again, I will not use a bow or a musical instrument!”

 

Go ahead and chide me. I know it was a foolish oath, spoken in a moment of misery and self-pity. And it was binding. An oath sworn on the River Styx can have terrible consequences if broken.

But I didn’t care. Zeus had cursed me with mortality. I was not going to pretend that everything was normal. I would not be Apollo until I was really Apollo. For now, I was just a stupid young man named Lester Papadopoulos. Maybe I would waste my time on skills I didn’t care about—like sword fighting or badminton—but I would not sully the memory of my once-perfect music and archery.

Kayla stared at me in horror. “Dad, you don’t mean it.” “I do!”

 

“Take it back! You can’t…” She glanced over my shoulder. “What is he doing?” I followed her gaze.

Sherman Yang was walking slowly, trancelike, into the woods.

It would have been foolhardy to run after him, straight into the most dangerous part of camp. So that’s exactly what Kayla and I did.

 

We almost didn’t make it. As soon as we reached the tree line, the forest darkened. The temperature dropped. The horizon stretched out as if bent through a magnifying glass.

 

A woman whispered in my ear. This time I knew the voice well. It had never stopped haunting me.

 

You did this to me. Come. Chase me again.

Fear rolled through my stomach.

 

I imagined the branches turning to arms; the leaves undulated like green hands. Daphne, I thought.

 

Even after so many centuries, the guilt was overwhelming. I could not look at a tree without thinking of her. Forests made me nervous. The life force of each tree seemed to bear down on me with righteous hatred, accusing me of so many crimes….I wanted to fall to my knees. I wanted to beg forgiveness. But this was not the time.

 

I couldn’t allow the woods to confuse me again. I would not let anyone else fall into its trap.

 

Kayla didn’t seem affected. I grabbed her hand to make sure we stayed together. We only had to go a few steps, but it felt like a boot camp run before we reached Sherman Yang.

 

“Sherman.” I grabbed his arm.

 

He tried to shake me off. Fortunately, he was sluggish and dazed, or I would have ended up with scars of my own. Kayla helped me turn him around.

 

His eyes twitched as if he were in some sort of half-conscious REM sleep. “No. Ellis. Got to find him. Miranda. My girl.”

I glanced at Kayla for explanation.

“Ellis is from the Ares cabin,” she said. “He’s one of the missing.” “Yes, but Miranda, his girl?”

 

“Sherman and she started dating about a week ago.” “Ah.”

Sherman struggled to free himself. “Find her.”

“Miranda is right over here, my friend,” I lied. “We’ll take you there.”

 

He stopped fighting. His eyes rolled until only the whites were visible. “Over…here?” “Yes.”

“Ellis?”

“Yes, it’s me,” I said. “I’m Ellis.” “I love you, man,” Sherman sobbed.

Still, it took all our strength to lead him out of the trees. I was reminded of the time Hephaestus and I had to wrestle the god Hypnos back to bed after he sleepwalked into Artemis’s private chambers on Mount Olympus. It’s a wonder any of us escaped without silver arrows pincushioning our posteriors.

 

We led Sherman to the archery range. Between one step and the next, he blinked his eyes and became his normal self. He noticed our hands on his arms and shook us off.

“What is this?” he demanded.

“You were walking into the woods,” I said.

He gave us his drill sergeant glower. “No, I wasn’t.”

 

Kayla reached for him, then obviously thought better about it. Archery would be difficult with broken fingers. “Sherman, you were in some kind of trance. You were muttering about Ellis and Miranda.”

 

Along Sherman’s cheek, his zigzag scar darkened to bronze. “I don’t remember that.” “Although you didn’t mention the other missing camper,” I added helpfully. “Cecil?”

 

“Why would I mention Cecil?” Sherman growled. “I can’t stand the guy. And why should I believe you?”

“The woods had you,” I said. “The trees were pulling you in.”

Sherman studied the forest, but the trees looked normal again. The lengthening shadows and swaying green hands were gone.

 

“Look,” Sherman said, “I have a head injury, thanks to your annoying friend Meg. If I was acting strange, that’s why.”

Kayla frowned. “But—”

“Enough!” Sherman snapped. “If either of you mention this, I’ll make you eat your quivers. I don’t need people questioning my self-control. Besides, I’ve got the race to think about.”

 

He brushed past us. “Sherman,” I called.

He turned, his fists clenched.

“The last thing you remember,” I said, “before you found yourself with us…what were you thinking about?”

 

For a microsecond, the dazed look passed across his face again. “About Miranda and Ellis…like you said. I was thinking…I wanted to know where they were.”

 

“You were asking a question, then.” A blanket of dread settled over me. “You wanted information.”

 

“I…”

 

At the dining pavilion, the conch horn blew.

Sherman’s expression hardened. “Doesn’t matter. Drop it. We’ve got lunch now. Then I’m going to destroy you all in the three-legged death race.”

 

As threats went, I had heard worse, but Sherman made it sound intimidating enough. He marched off toward the pavilion.

Kayla turned to me. “What just happened?”

“I think I understand now,” I said. “I know why those campers went missing.”

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