The Hidden Oracle chapter 20

Don’t paint over gods

If you’re redecorating

That’s, like, common sense

 

RACHEL ELIZABETH DARE was one of my favorite mortals. As soon as she’d become the Oracle two summers ago, she’d brought new vigor and excitement to the job.

Of course, the previous Oracle had been a withered corpse, so perhaps the bar was low. Regardless, I was elated as the Dare Enterprises helicopter descended just beyond the eastern hills, outside the camp’s boundary. I wondered what Rachel had told her father—a fabulously wealthy real estate magnate—to convince him she needed to borrow a helicopter. I knew Rachel could be quite convincing.

 

I jogged across the valley with Meg in tow. I could already imagine the way Rachel would look as she came over the summit: her frizzy red hair, her vivacious smile, her paint-spattered blouse, and jeans covered with doodles. I needed her humor, wisdom, and resilience. The Oracle would cheer us all up. Most importantly, she would cheer me up.

 

I was not prepared for the reality. (Which again, was a stunning surprise. Normally, reality prepares itself for me.)

 

Rachel met us on the hill near the entrance to her cave. Only later would I realize Chiron’s two satyr messengers were not with her, and I would wonder what had happened to them.

 

Miss Dare looked thinner and older—less like a high school girl and more like a young farmer’s wife from ancient times, weathered from hard work and gaunt from shortage of food. Her red hair had lost its vibrancy. It framed her face in a curtain of dark copper. Her freckles had faded to watermarks. Her green eyes did not sparkle. And she was wearing a dress—a white cotton frock with a white shawl, and a patina-green jacket. Rachel never wore dresses.

 

“Rachel?” I didn’t trust myself to say any more. She was not the same person. Then I remembered that I wasn’t either.

She studied my new mortal form. Her shoulders slumped. “So it’s true.”

From below us came the voices of other campers. No doubt woken by the sound of the helicopter, they were emerging from their cabins and gathering at the base of the hill. None tried to climb toward us, though. Perhaps they sensed that all was not right.

 

The helicopter rose from behind Half-Blood Hill. It veered toward Long Island Sound, passing so close to the Athena Parthenos that I thought its landing skids might clip the goddess’s winged helmet.

 

I turned to Meg. “Would you tell the others that Rachel needs some space? Fetch Chiron. He should come up. The rest should wait.”

 

It wasn’t like Meg to take orders from me. I half expected her to kick me. Instead, she glanced nervously at Rachel, turned, and trudged down the hill.

 

“A friend of yours?” Rachel asked. “Long story.”

 

“Yes,” she said. “I have a story like that, too.” “Shall we talk in your cave?”

Rachel pursed her lips. “You won’t like it. But yes, that’s probably the safest place.”

 

 

The cave was not as cozy as I remembered.

 

The sofas were overturned. The coffee table had a broken leg. The floor was strewn with easels and canvases. Even Rachel’s tripod stool, the throne of prophecy itself, lay on its side on a pile of paint-splattered drop cloths.

 

Most disturbing was the state of the walls. Ever since taking up residence, Rachel had been painting them, like her cave-dwelling ancestors of old. She had spent hours on elaborate murals of events from the past, images from the future she’d seen in prophecies, favorite quotes from books and music, and abstract designs so good they would have given M. C. Escher vertigo. The art made the cave feel like a mixture of art studio, psychedelic hangout, and graffiti-covered highway underpass. I loved it.

 

But most of the images had been blotted out with a sloppy coat of white paint. Nearby, a roller was stuck in an encrusted tray. Clearly Rachel had defaced her own work months ago and hadn’t been back since.

She waved listlessly at the wreckage. “I got frustrated.”

 

“Your art…” I gaped at the field of white. “There was a lovely portrait of me—right there.” I get offended whenever art is damaged, especially if that art features me.

 

Rachel looked ashamed. “I—I thought a blank canvas might help me think.” Her tone made it obvious that the whitewashing had accomplished nothing. I could have told her as much.

 

The two of us did our best to clean up. We hauled the sofas back into place to form a sitting area. Rachel left the tripod stool where it lay.

 

A few minutes later, Meg returned. Chiron followed in full centaur form, ducking his head to fit through the entrance. They found us sitting at the wobbly coffee table like civilized cave people, sharing lukewarm Arizona tea and stale crackers from the Oracle’s larder.

“Rachel.” Chiron sighed with relief. “Where are Millard and Herbert?”

 

She bowed her head. “They arrived at my house badly wounded. They…they didn’t make it.” Perhaps it was the morning light behind him, but I fancied I could see new gray whiskers growing in

 

Chiron’s beard. The centaur trotted over and lowered himself to the ground, folding his legs underneath himself. Meg joined me on the couch.

 

Rachel leaned forward and steepled her fingers, as she did when she spoke a prophecy. I half hoped the spirit of Delphi would possess her, but there was no smoke, no hissing, no raspy voice of divine possession. It was a bit disappointing.

“You first,” she told us. “Tell me what’s been going on here.”

 

We brought her up to speed on the disappearances and my misadventures with Meg. I explained about the three-legged race and our side trip to Delphi.

Chiron blanched. “I did not know this. You went to Delphi?”

Rachel stared at me in disbelief. “The Delphi. You saw Python and you…”

I got the feeling she wanted to say and you didn’t kill him? But she restrained herself.

 

I felt like standing with my face against the wall. Perhaps Rachel could blot me out with white paint. Disappearing would’ve been less painful than facing my failures.

 

“At present,” I said, “I cannot defeat Python. I am much too weak. And…well, the Catch-88.” Chiron sipped his Arizona tea. “Apollo means that we cannot send a quest without a prophecy, and

we cannot get a prophecy without an Oracle.”

 

Rachel stared at her overturned tripod stool. “And this man…the Beast. What do you know about him?”

 

“Not much.” I explained what I had seen in my dream, and what Meg and I had overheard in the Labyrinth. “The Beast apparently has a reputation for snatching up young demigods in New York. Meg says…” I faltered when I saw her expression, clearly cautioning me to stay away from her personal history. “Um, she’s had some experience with the Beast.”

 

Chiron raised his brows. “Can you tell us anything that might help, dear?”

Meg sank into the sofa’s cushions. “I’ve crossed paths with him. He’s—he’s scary. The memory is blurry.”

“Blurry,” Chiron repeated.

Meg became very interested in the cracker crumbs on her dress.

 

Rachel gave me a quizzical look. I shook my head, trying my best to impart a warning: Trauma. Don’t ask. Might get attacked by a peach baby.

 

Rachel seemed to get the message. “That’s all right, Meg,” she said. “I have some information that may help.”

 

She fished her phone from her coat pocket. “Don’t touch this. You guys have probably figured it out, but phones are going even more haywire than usual around demigods. I’m not technically one of you, and even I can’t place calls. I was able to take a couple of pictures, though.” She turned the screen toward us. “Chiron, you recognize this place?”

 

The nighttime shot showed the upper floors of a glass residential tower. Judging from the background, it was somewhere in downtown Manhattan.

 

“That is the building you described last summer,” Chiron said, “where you parleyed with the Romans.”

 

“Yeah,” Rachel said. “Something didn’t feel right about that place. I got to thinking…how did the Romans take over such prime Manhattan real estate on such short notice? Who owns it? I tried to contact Reyna, to see if she could tell me anything, but—”

“Communications problems?” Chiron guessed.

 

“Exactly. I even sent physical mail to Camp Jupiter’s drop box in Berkeley. No response. So I asked my dad’s real estate lawyers to do some digging.”

Meg peeked over the top of her glasses. “Your dad has lawyers? And a helicopter?”

“Several helicopters.” Rachel sighed. “He’s annoying. Anyway, that building is owned by a shell corporation, which is owned by another shell corporation, blah, blah, blah. The mother company is something called Triumvirate Holdings.”

 

I felt a trickle like white paint rolling down my back. “Triumvirate…” Meg made a sour face. “What does that mean?”

 

“A triumvirate is a ruling council of three,” I said. “At least, that’s what it meant in ancient Rome.” “Which is interesting,” Rachel said, “because of this next shot.” She tapped her screen. The new

 

photo zoomed in on the building’s penthouse terrace, where three shadowy figures stood talking together —men in business suits, illuminated only by the light from inside the apartment. I couldn’t see their faces.

 

“These are the owners of Triumvirate Holdings,” Rachel said. “Just getting this one picture wasn’t easy.” She blew a frizzy strand of hair out of her face. “I’ve spent the last two months investigating them, and I don’t even know their names. I don’t know where they live or where they came from. But I can tell you they own so much property and have so much money, they make my dad’s company look like a kid’s lemonade stand.”

 

I stared at the picture of the three shadowy figures. I could almost imagine that the one on the left was the Beast. His slouching posture and the over-large shape of his head reminded me of the man in purple from my dream.

“The Beast said that his organization was everywhere,” I recalled. “He mentioned he had colleagues.” Chiron’s tail flicked, sending a paintbrush skidding across the cave floor. “Adult demigods? I can’t

imagine they would be Greek, but perhaps Roman? If they helped Octavian with his war—”

“Oh, they helped,” Rachel said. “I found a paper trail—not much, but you remember those siege weapons Octavian built to destroy Camp Half-Blood?”

“No,” said Meg.

I would have ignored her, but Rachel was a more generous soul.

 

She smiled patiently. “Sorry, Meg. You seem so at home here, I forgot you were new. Basically, the Roman demigods attacked this camp with giant catapulty things called onagers. It was all a big misunderstanding. Anyway, the weapons were paid for by Triumvirate Holdings.”

Chiron frowned. “That is not good.”

 

“I found something even more disturbing,” Rachel continued. “You remember before that, during the Titan War, Luke Castellan mentioned he had backers in the mortal world? They had enough money to buy a cruise ship, helicopters, weapons. They even hired mortal mercenaries.”

“Don’t remember that, either,” Meg said.

 

I rolled my eyes. “Meg, we can’t stop and explain every major war to you! Luke Castellan was a child of Hermes. He betrayed this camp and allied himself with the Titans. They attacked New York. Big battle. I saved the day. Et cetera.”

 

Chiron coughed. “At any rate, I do remember Luke claiming that he had lots of supporters. We never found out exactly who they were.”

 

“Now we know,” Rachel said. “That cruise ship, the Princess Andromeda, was property of Triumvirate Holdings.”

 

A cold sense of unease gripped me. I felt I should know something about this, but my mortal brain was betraying me again. I was more certain than ever that Zeus was toying with me, keeping my vision and memory limited. I remembered some assurances Octavian had given me, though—how easy it would be to win his little war, to raise new temples to me, how much support he had.

Rachel’s phone screen went dark—much like my brain—but the grainy photo remained burned into my retinas.

 

“These men…” I picked up an empty tube of burnt sienna paint. “I’m afraid they are not modern demigods.”

 

Rachel frowned. “You think they’re ancient demigods who came through the Doors of Death—like Medea, or Midas? The thing is, Triumvirate Holdings has been around since way before Gaea started to wake. Decades, at least.”

“Centuries,” I said. “The Beast said that he’d been building his empire for centuries.”

 

The cave became so silent, I imagined the hiss of Python, the soft exhale of fumes from deep in the earth. I wished we had some background music to drown it out…jazz or classical. I would have settled for death metal polka.

Rachel shook her head. “Then who—?”

 

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But the Beast…in my dream, he called me his forefather. He assumed I would recognize him. And if my godly memory was intact, I think I would. His demeanor, his accent, his facial structure—I have met him before, just not in modern times.”

 

Meg had grown very quiet. I got the distinct impression she was trying to disappear into the couch cushions. Normally, this would not have bothered me, but after our experience in the Labyrinth, I felt guilty every time I mentioned the Beast. My pesky mortal conscience must have been acting up.

 

“The name Triumvirate…” I tapped my forehead, trying to shake loose information that was no longer there. “The last triumvirate I dealt with included Lepidus, Marc Antony, and my son, the original Octavian. A triumvirate is a very Roman concept…like patriotism, skullduggery, and assassination.”

 

Chiron stroked his beard. “You think these men are ancient Romans? How is that possible? Hades is quite good at tracking down escaped spirits from the Underworld. He would not allow three men from ancient times to run amok in the modern world for centuries.”

 

“Again, I do not know.” Saying this so often offended my divine sensibilities. I decided that when I returned to Olympus, I would have to gargle the bad taste out of my mouth with Tabasco-flavored nectar. “But it seems these men have been plotting against us for a very long time. They funded Luke Castellan’s war. They supplied aid to Camp Jupiter when the Romans attacked Camp Half-Blood. And despite those two wars, the Triumvirate is still out there—still plotting. What if this company is the root cause of… well, everything?”

 

Chiron looked at me as if I were digging his grave. “That is a very troubling thought. Could three men be so powerful?”

 

I spread my hands. “You’ve lived long enough to know, my friend. Gods, monsters, Titans…these are always dangerous. But the greatest threat to demigods has always been other demigods. Whoever this Triumvirate is, we must stop them before they take control of the Oracles.”

Rachel sat up straight. “Excuse me? Oracles plural?” “Ah…didn’t I tell you about them when I was a god?”

 

Her eyes regained some of their dark green intensity. I feared she was envisioning ways she might inflict pain upon me with her art supplies.

“No,” she said levelly, “you did not tell me about them.”

“Oh…well, my mortal memory has been faulty, you see. I had to read some books in order to—” “Oracles,” she repeated. “Plural.”

 

I took a deep breath. I wanted to assure her that those other Oracles didn’t mean a thing to me! Rachel was special! Unfortunately, I doubted she was in a place where she could hear that right now. I decided it was best to speak plainly.

 

“In ancient times,” I said, “there were many Oracles. Of course Delphi was the most famous, but there were four others of comparable power.”

Chiron shook his head. “But those were destroyed ages ago.”

“So I thought,” I agreed. “Now I am not so sure. I believe Triumvirate Holdings wants to control all the ancient Oracles. And I believe the most ancient Oracle of all, the Grove of Dodona, is right here at Camp Half-Blood.”

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