The Hidden Oracle chapter 19

They have gone missing?

No, no, no, no, no, no, no

No, et cetera

 

THE ONLY BIOHAZARDS we encountered were vegan cupcakes.

 

After navigating several torchlit corridors, we burst into a crowded modern bakery that, according to the menu board, had the dubious name THE LEVEL TEN VEGAN. Our garbage/volcanic gas stench quickly dispersed the customers, driving most toward the exit, and causing many non-dairy gluten-free baked goods to be trampled. We ducked behind the counter, charged through the kitchen doors, and found ourselves in a subterranean amphitheater that looked centuries old.

Tiers of stone seats ringed a sandy pit about the right size for a gladiator fight. Hanging from the ceiling were dozens of thick iron chains. I wondered what ghastly spectacles might have been staged here, but we didn’t stay very long.

We limped out the opposite side, back into the Labyrinth’s twisting corridors.

 

By this point, we had perfected the art of three-legged running. Whenever I started to tire, I imagined Python behind us, spewing poisonous gas.

 

At last we turned a corner, and Meg shouted, “There!” In the middle of the corridor sat a third golden apple.

 

This time I was too exhausted to care about traps. We loped forward until Meg scooped up the fruit. In front of us, the ceiling lowered, forming a ramp. Fresh air filled my lungs. We climbed to the top, but instead of feeling elated, my insides turned as cold as the garbage juice on my skin. We were back in

 

the woods.

“Not here,” I muttered. “Gods, no.”

Meg hopped us in a full circle. “Maybe it’s a different forest.”

 

But it wasn’t. I could feel the resentful stare of the trees, the horizon stretching out in all directions. Voices began to whisper, waking to our presence.

“Hurry,” I said.

As if on cue, the bands around our legs sprang loose. We ran.

 

Even with her arms full of apples, Meg was faster. She veered between trees, zigzagging left and right as if following a course only she could see. My legs ached and my chest burned, but I didn’t dare fall behind.

 

Up ahead, flickering points of light resolved into torches. At last we burst out of the woods, right into a crowd of campers and satyrs.

 

Chiron galloped over. “Thank the gods!”

 

“You’re welcome,” I gasped, mostly out of habit. “Chiron…we have to talk.”

In the torchlight, the centaur’s face seemed carved from shadow. “Yes, we do, my friend. But first, I fear one more team is still missing…your children, Kayla and Austin.”

 

 

Chiron forced us to take showers and change clothes. Otherwise I would have plunged straight back into the woods.

By the time I was done, Kayla and Austin still had not returned.

Chiron had sent search parties of dryads into the forest, on the assumption that they would be safe in their home territory, but he adamantly refused to let demigods join the hunt.

 

“We cannot risk anyone else,” he said. “Kayla, Austin, and—and the other missing…They would not want that.”

 

Five campers had now disappeared. I harbored no illusions that Kayla and Austin would return on their own. The Beast’s words still echoed in my ears: I have upped the stakes. Apollo will have no choice.

 

Somehow he had targeted my children. He was inviting me to look for them, and to find the gates of this hidden Oracle. There was still so much I did not understand—how the ancient grove of Dodona had relocated here, what sort of “gates” it might have, why the Beast thought I could open them, and how he’d snared Austin and Kayla. But there was one thing I did know: the Beast was right. I had no choice. I had to find my children…my friends.

 

I would have ignored Chiron’s warning and run into the forest except for Will’s panicked shout, “Apollo, I need you!”

 

At the far end of the field, he had set up an impromptu hospital where half a dozen campers lay injured on stretchers. He was frantically tending to Paolo Montes while Nico held down the screaming patient.

 

I ran to Will’s side and winced at what I saw. Paolo had managed to get one of his legs sawed off.

 

“I got it reattached,” Will told me, his voice shaky with exhaustion. His scrubs were speckled with blood. “I need somebody to keep him stable.”

I pointed to the woods. “But—”

“I know!” Will snapped. “Don’t you think I want to be out there searching too? We’re shorthanded for healers. There’s some salve and nectar in that pack. Go!”

 

I was stunned by his tone. I realized he was just as concerned about Kayla and Austin as I was. The only difference: Will knew his duty. He had to heal the injured first. And he needed my help.

“Y-yes,” I said. “Yes, of course.”

 

I grabbed the supply pack and took charge of Paolo, who had conveniently passed out from the pain. Will changed his surgical gloves and glared at the woods. “We will find them. We have to.”

Nico di Angelo gave him a canteen. “Drink. Right now, this is where you need to be.”

 

I could tell the son of Hades was angry too. Around his feet, the grass steamed and withered.

 

Will sighed. “You’re right. But that doesn’t make me feel better. I have to set Valentina’s broken arm now. You want to assist?”

“Sounds gruesome,” Nico said. “Let’s go.”

I tended to Paolo Montes until I was sure he was out of danger, then asked two satyrs to carry his stretcher to the Hebe cabin.

 

I did what I could to nurse the others. Chiara had a mild concussion. Billie Ng had come down with a case of Irish step dancing. Holly and Laurel needed pieces of shrapnel removed from their backs, thanks to a close encounter with an exploding chain-saw Frisbee.

 

The Victor twins had placed in first, predictably, but they also demanded to know which of them had the most pieces of shrapnel extracted, so they could have bragging rights. I told them to be quiet or I would never allow them to wear laurel wreaths again. (As the guy who held the patent on laurel wreaths, that was my prerogative.)

 

I found my mortal healing skills were passable. Will Solace far outshone me, but that didn’t bother me as much as my failures with archery and music had. I suppose I was used to being second in healing. My son Asclepius had become the god of medicine by the time he was fifteen, and I couldn’t have been happier for him. It left me time for my other interests. Besides, it’s every god’s dream to have a child who grows up to be a doctor.

 

As I was washing up from the shrapnel extraction, Harley shuffled over, fiddling with his beacon device. His eyes were puffy from crying.

“It’s my fault,” he muttered. “I got them lost. I…I’m sorry.”

He was shaking. I realized the little boy was terrified of what I might do.

 

For the past two days, I had yearned to cause fear in mortals again. My stomach had boiled with resentment and bitterness. I wanted someone to blame for my predicament, for the disappearances, for my own powerlessness to fix things.

 

Looking at Harley, my anger evaporated. I felt hollow, silly, ashamed of myself. Yes, me, Apollo… ashamed. Truly, it was an event so unprecedented, it should have ripped apart the cosmos.

“It’s all right,” I told him.

 

He sniffled. “The racecourse went into the woods. It shouldn’t have done that. They got lost and…and

 

—”

“Harley”—I placed my hands over his—“may I see your beacon?”

 

He blinked the tears away. I guess he was afraid I might smash his gadget, but he let me take it.

 

“I’m not an inventor,” I said, turning the gears as gently as possible. “I don’t have your father’s skills. But I do know music. I believe automatons prefer a frequency of E at 329.6 hertz. It resonates best with Celestial bronze. If you adjust your signal—”

“Festus might hear it?” Harley’s eyes widened. “Really?”

 

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Just as you could not have known what the Labyrinth would do today. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Never stop inventing, son of Hephaestus.”

 

I gave him back his beacon. For a count of three, Harley stared at me in disbelief. Then he hugged me so hard he nearly rebroke my ribs, and he dashed away.

 

I tended to the last of the injured while the harpies cleaned the area, picking up bandages, torn clothing, and damaged weapons. They gathered the golden apples in a basket and promised to bake us some lovely glowing apple turnovers for breakfast.

 

At Chiron’s urging, the remaining campers dispersed back to their cabins. He promised them we would determine what to do in the morning, but I had no intention of waiting.

As soon as we were alone, I turned to Chiron and Meg.

“I’m going after Kayla and Austin,” I told them. “You can join me or not.”

 

Chiron’s expression tightened. “My friend, you’re exhausted and unprepared. Go back to your cabin. It will serve no purpose—”

 

“No.” I waved him off, as I once might have done when I was a god. The gesture probably looked petulant coming from a sixteen-year-old nobody, but I didn’t care. “I have to do this.”

The centaur lowered his head. “I should have listened to you before the race. You tried to warn me. What—what did you discover?”

The question stopped my momentum like a seat belt.

After rescuing Sherman Yang, after listening to Python in the Labyrinth, I had felt certain I knew the answers. I had remembered the name Dodona, the stories about talking trees…

 

Now my mind was once again a bowl of fuzzy mortal soup. I couldn’t recall what I’d been so excited about, or what I had intended to do about it.

 

Perhaps exhaustion and stress had taken their toll. Or maybe Zeus was manipulating my brain— allowing me tantalizing glimpses of the truth, then snatching them away, turning my aha! moments into huh? moments.

 

I howled in frustration. “I don’t remember!” Meg and Chiron exchanged nervous glances. “You’re not going,” Meg told me firmly.

What? You can’t—”

 

“That’s an order,” she said. “No going into the woods until I say so.” The command sent a shudder from the base of my skull to my heels.

 

I dug my fingernails into my palms. “Meg McCaffrey, if my children die because you wouldn’t let me

 

—”

“Like Chiron said, you’d just get yourself killed. We’ll wait for daylight.”

 

I thought how satisfying it would be to drop Meg from the sun chariot at high noon. Then again, some small rational part of me realized she might be right. I was in no condition to launch a one-man rescue operation. That just made me angrier.

 

Chiron’s tail swished from side to side. “Well, then…I will see you both in the morning. We will find a solution. I promise you that.”

 

He gave me one last look, as if worried I might start running in circles and baying at the moon. Then he trotted back toward the Big House.

 

I scowled at Meg. “I’m staying out here tonight, in case Kayla and Austin come back. Unless you want to forbid me from doing that, too.”

She only shrugged. Even her shrugs were annoying.

I stormed off to the Me cabin and grabbed a few supplies: a flashlight, two blankets, a canteen of water. As an afterthought, I took a few books from Will Solace’s bookshelf. No surprise, he kept reference materials about me to share with new campers. I thought perhaps the books might help jog my memories. Failing that, they’d make good tinder for a fire.

 

When I returned to the edge of the woods, Meg was still there.

I hadn’t expected her to keep vigil with me. Being Meg, she had apparently decided it would be the best way to irritate me.

 

She sat next to me on my blanket and began eating a golden apple, which she had hidden in her coat. Winter mist drifted through the trees. The night breeze rippled through the grass, making patterns like waves.

 

Under different circumstances, I might have written a poem about it. In my present state of mind, I could only have managed a funeral dirge, and I did not want to think about death.

 

I tried to stay mad at Meg, but I couldn’t manage it. I supposed she’d had my best interests at heart… or at least, she wasn’t ready to see her new godly servant get himself killed.

 

She didn’t try to console me. She asked me no questions. She amused herself by picking up small rocks and tossing them into the woods. That, I didn’t mind. I happily would’ve given her a catapult if I had one.

As the night wore on, I read about myself in Will’s books.

 

Normally this would have been a happy task. I am, after all, a fascinating subject. This time, however, I gained no satisfaction from my glorious exploits. They all seemed like exaggerations, lies, and…well, myths. Unfortunately, I found a chapter about Oracles. Those few pages stirred my memory, confirming my worst suspicions.

 

I was too angry to be terrified. I stared at the woods and dared the whispering voices to disturb me. I

 

thought, Come on, then. Take me, too. The trees remained silent. Kayla and Austin did not return. Toward dawn, it started to snow. Only then did Meg speak. “We should go inside.”

“And abandon them?”

 

“Don’t be stupid.” Snow salted the hood of her winter coat. Her face was hidden except for the tip of her nose and the glint of rhinestones on her glasses. “You’ll freeze out here.”

 

I noticed she didn’t complain about the cold herself. I wondered if she even felt uncomfortable, or if the power of Demeter kept her safe through the winter like a leafless tree or a dormant seed in the earth.

 

“They were my children.” It hurt me to use the past tense, but Kayla and Austin felt irretrievably lost. “I should’ve done more to protect them. I should have anticipated that my enemies would target them to hurt me.”

 

Meg chucked another rock at the trees. “You’ve had a lot of children. You take the blame every time one of them gets in trouble?”

 

The answer was no. Over the millennia, I had barely managed to remember my children’s names. If I sent them an occasional birthday card or a magic flute, I felt really good about myself. Sometimes I wouldn’t realize one of them had died until decades later. During the French Revolution, I got worried about my boy Louis XIV, the Sun King, then went down to check on him and found out he had died seventy-five years earlier.

 

Now, though, I had a mortal conscience. My sense of guilt seemed to have expanded as my life span contracted. I couldn’t explain that to Meg. She would never understand. She’d probably just throw a rock at me.

 

“It’s my fault Python retook Delphi,” I said. “If I had killed him the moment he reappeared, while I was still a god, he would never have become so powerful. He would never have made an alliance with this…this Beast.

Meg lowered her face.

 

“You know him,” I guessed. “In the Labyrinth, when you heard the Beast’s voice, you were terrified.” I was worried she might order me to shut up again. Instead, she silently traced the crescents on her

gold rings.

 

“Meg, he wants to destroy me,” I said. “Somehow, he’s behind these disappearances. The more we understand about this man—”

“He lives in New York.”

I waited. It was difficult to glean much information from the top of Meg’s hood.

“All right,” I said. “That narrows it down to eight and a half million people. What else?”

 

Meg picked at the calluses on her fingers. “If you’re a demigod on the streets, you hear about the Beast. He takes people like me.”

 

A snowflake melted on the back of my neck. “Takes people…why?” “To train,” Meg said. “To use like…servants, soldiers. I don’t know.” “And you’ve met him.”

 

“Please don’t ask me—” “Meg.”

“He killed my dad.”

Her words were quiet, but they hit me harder than a rock in the face. “Meg, I—I’m sorry. How…?” “I refused to work for him,” she said. “My dad tried to…” She closed her fists. “I was really small. I

 

hardly remember it. I got away. Otherwise, the Beast would’ve killed me, too. My stepdad took me in. He was good to me. You asked why he trained me to fight? Why he gave me the rings? He wanted me to be safe, to be able to protect myself.”

“From the Beast.”

 

Her hood dipped. “Being a good demigod, training hard…that’s the only way to keep the Beast away.

 

Now you know.”

 

In fact, I had more questions than ever, but I sensed that Meg was in no mood for further sharing. I remembered her expression as we stood on that ledge under the chamber of Delphi—her look of absolute terror when she recognized the Beast’s voice. Not all monsters were three-ton reptiles with poisonous breath. Many wore human faces.

 

I peered into the woods. Somewhere in there, five demigods were being used as bait, including two of my children. The Beast wanted me to search for them, and I would. But I would not let him use me.

 

  • have well-placed help within the camp, the Beast had said. That bothered me.

 

  • knew from experience that any demigod could be turned against Olympus. I had been at the banquet table when Tantalus tried to poison the gods by feeding us his chopped-up son in a stew. I’d watched as King Mithridates sided with the Persians and massacred every Roman in Anatolia. I’d witnessed Queen Clytemnestra turn homicidal, killing her husband Agamemnon just because he made one little human sacrifice to me. Demigods are an unpredictable bunch.

 

  • glanced at Meg. I wondered if she could be lying to me—if she was some sort of spy. It seemed unlikely. She was too contrary, impetuous, and annoying to be an effective mole. Besides, she was technically my master. She could order me to do almost any task and I would have to obey. If she was out to destroy me, I was already as good as dead.

 

Perhaps Damien White…a son of Nemesis was a natural choice for backstabbing duty. Or Connor Stoll, Alice, or Julia…a child of Hermes had recently betrayed the gods by working for Kronos. They might do so again. Maybe that pretty Chiara, daughter of Tyche, was in league with the Beast. Children of luck were natural gamblers. The truth was, I had no idea.

 

The sky turned from black to gray. I became aware of a distant thump, thump, thump—a quick, relentless pulse that got louder and louder. At first, I feared it might be the blood in my head. Could human brains explode from too many worrisome thoughts? Then I realized the noise was mechanical, coming from the west. It was the distinctly modern sound of rotor blades cutting the air.

 

Meg lifted her head. “Is that a helicopter?”

  • got to my feet.

 

The machine appeared—a dark red Bell 412 cutting north along the coastline. (Riding the skies as often as I do, I know my flying machines.) Painted on the helicopter’s side was a bright green logo with the letters D.E.

 

Despite my misery, a small bit of hope kindled inside me. The satyrs Millard and Herbert must have succeeded in delivering their message.

 

“That,” I told Meg, “is Rachel Elizabeth Dare. Let’s go see what the Oracle of Delphi has to say.”

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