The Hidden Oracle chapter 22

Armed to the eyeballs:

A combat ukulele

Magic Brazil scarf

 

SUN GODS ARE NOT GOOD at sleeping during the day, but somehow I managed a fitful nap. When I woke in the late afternoon, I found the camp in a state of agitation.

Kayla and Austin’s disappearance had been the tipping point. The other campers were now so rattled, no one could maintain a normal schedule. I suppose a single demigod disappearing every few weeks felt like a normal casualty rate. But a pair of demigods disappearing in the middle of a camp-sanctioned activity—that meant no one was safe.

 

Word must have spread of our conference in the cave. The Victor twins had stuffed wads of cotton in their ears to foil the oracular voices. Julia and Alice had climbed to the top of the lava wall and were using binoculars to scan the woods, no doubt hoping to spot the Grove of Dodona, but I doubted they could see the trees for the forest.

 

Everywhere I went, people were unhappy to see me. Damien and Chiara sat together at the canoe dock, glowering in my direction. Sherman Yang waved me away when I tried to talk with him. He was busy decorating the Ares cabin with frag grenades and brightly decorated claymores. If it had been Saturnalia, he definitely would have won the prize for most violent holiday decorations.

 

Even the Athena Parthenos stared down at me accusingly from the top of the hill as if to say, This is all your fault.

 

She was right. If I hadn’t let Python take over Delphi, if I’d paid more attention to the other ancient Oracles, if I hadn’t lost my divinity—

Stop it, Apollo, I scolded myself. You’re beautiful and everyone loves you.

But it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe that. My father, Zeus, did not love me. The demigods at Camp Half-Blood did not love me. Python and the Beast and his comrades at Triumvirate Holdings did not love me. It was almost enough to make me question my self-worth.

No, no. That was crazy talk.

 

Chiron and Rachel were nowhere to be seen. Nyssa Barrera informed me that they were hoping against hope to use the camp’s sole Internet connection, in Chiron’s office, to access more information about Triumvirate Holdings. Harley was with them for tech support. They were presently on hold with Comcast customer service and might not emerge for hours, if indeed they survived the ordeal at all.

 

I found Meg at the armory, browsing for battle supplies. She had strapped a leather cuirass over her green dress and greaves over orange leggings, so she looked like a kindergartener reluctantly stuffed into

 

combat gear by her parents. “Perhaps a shield?” I suggested.

 

“Nuh-uh.” She showed me her rings. “I always use two swords. Plus I need a free hand for slapping when you act stupid.”

I had the uncomfortable sense she was serious.

From the weapon rack, she pulled out a long bow and offered it to me. I recoiled. “No.”

“It’s your best weapon. You’re Apollo.”

I swallowed back the tang of mortal bile. “I swore an oath. I’m not the god of archery or music anymore. I won’t use a bow or a musical instrument until I can use them properly.”

 

“Stupid oath.” She didn’t slap me, but she looked like she wanted to. “What will you do, just stand around and cheer while I fight?”

 

That had indeed been my plan, but now I felt silly admitting it. I scanned the weapon display and grabbed a sword. Even without drawing it, I could tell it would be too heavy and awkward for me to use, but I strapped the scabbard around my waist.

“There,” I said. “Happy?”

 

Meg did not appear happy. Nevertheless, she returned the bow to its place. “Fine,” she said. “But you’d better have my back.”

 

I had never understood that expression. It made me think of the KICK ME signs Artemis used to tape to my toga during festival days. Still, I nodded. “Your back shall be had.”

 

We reached the edge of the woods and found a small going-away party waiting for us: Will and Nico, Paolo Montes, Malcolm Pace, and Billie Ng, all with grim faces.

“Be careful,” Will told me. “And here.”

Before I could object, he placed a ukulele in my hands. I tried to give it back. “I can’t. I made an oath—”

 

“Yeah, I know. That was stupid of you. But it’s a combat ukulele. You can fight with it if you need to.” I looked more closely at the instrument. It was made from Celestial bronze—thin sheets of metal acid-etched to resemble the grain of blond oak wood. The instrument weighed next to nothing, yet I imagined it

was almost indestructible.

“The work of Hephaestus?” I asked.

Will shook his head. “The work of Harley. He wanted you to have it. Just sling it over your back. For me and Harley. It’ll make us both feel better.”

 

I decided I was obliged to honor the request, though my possession of a ukulele had rarely made anyone feel better. Don’t ask me why. When I was a god, I used to do an absolutely blistering ukulele version of “Satisfaction.”

 

Nico handed me some ambrosia wrapped in a napkin. “I can’t eat this,” I reminded him.

 

“It’s not for you.” He glanced at Meg, his eyes full of misgiving. I remembered that the son of Hades had his own ways of sensing the future—futures that involved the possibility of death. I shivered and tucked the ambrosia into my coat pocket. As aggravating as Meg could be, I was deeply unsettled by the idea that she might come to harm. I decided that I could not allow that to happen.

 

Malcolm was showing Meg a parchment map, pointing out various places in the woods that we should avoid. Paolo—looking completely healed from his leg surgery—stood next to him, carefully and earnestly providing Portuguese commentary that no one could understand.

When they were finished with the map, Billie Ng approached Meg.

 

Billie was a wisp of a girl. She compensated for her diminutive stature with the fashion sense of a K-Pop idol. Her winter coat was the color of aluminum foil. Her bobbed hair was aquamarine and her

 

makeup gold. I completely approved. In fact, I thought I could rock that look myself if I could just get my acne under control.

 

Billie gave Meg a flashlight and a small packet of flower seeds. “Just in case,” Billie said.

Meg seemed quite overwhelmed. She gave Billie a fierce hug.

I didn’t understand the purpose of the seeds, but it was comforting to know that in a dire emergency I could hit people with my ukulele while Meg planted geraniums.

 

Malcolm Pace gave me his parchment map. “When in doubt, veer to the right. That usually works in the woods, though I don’t know why.”

 

Paolo offered me a green-and-gold scarf—a bandana version of the Brazilian flag. He said something that, of course, I could not understand.

 

Nico smirked. “That’s Paolo’s good-luck bandana. I think he wants you to wear it. He believes it will make you invincible.”

 

I found this dubious, since Paolo was prone to serious injury, but as a god, I had learned never to turn down offerings. “Thank you.”

 

Paolo gripped my shoulders and kissed my cheeks. I may have blushed. He was quite handsome when he wasn’t bleeding out from dismemberment.

 

I rested my hand on Will’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back by dawn.” His mouth trembled ever so slightly. “How can you be sure?”

 

“I’m the sun god,” I said, trying to muster more confidence than I felt. “I always return at dawn.”

 

 

Of course it rained. Why would it not?

 

Up in Mount Olympus, Zeus must have been having a good laugh at my expense. Camp Half-Blood was supposed to be protected from severe weather, but no doubt my father had told Aeolus to pull out all the stops on his winds. My jilted ex-girlfriends among the air nymphs were probably enjoying their moment of payback.

 

The rain was just on the edge of sleet—liquid enough to soak my clothes, icy enough to slam against my exposed face like glass shards.

 

We stumbled along, lurching from tree to tree to find any shelter we could. Patches of old snow crunched under my feet. My ukulele got heavier as its sound hole filled with rain. Meg’s flashlight beam cut across the storm like a cone of yellow static.

 

I led the way, not because I had any destination in mind, but because I was angry. I was tired of being cold and soaked. I was tired of being picked on. Mortals often talk about the whole world being against them, but that is ridiculous. Mortals aren’t that important. In my case, the whole world really was against me. I refused to surrender to such abuse. I would do something about it! I just wasn’t quite sure what.

 

From time to time we heard monsters in the distance—the roar of a drakon, the harmonized howl of a two-headed wolf—but nothing showed itself. On a night like this, any self-respecting monster would’ve remained in its lair, warm and cozy.

 

After what seemed like hours, Meg stifled a scream. I heroically leaped to her side, my hand on my sword. (I would have drawn it, but it was really heavy and got stuck in the scabbard.) At Meg’s feet, wedged in the mud, was a glistening black shell the size of a boulder. It was cracked down the middle, the edges splattered with a foul gooey substance.

“I almost stepped on that.” Meg covered her mouth as if she might be sick.

 

I inched closer. The shell was the crushed carapace of a giant insect. Nearby, camouflaged among the tree roots, lay one of the beast’s dismembered legs.

“It’s a myrmeke,” I said. “Or it was.”

 

Behind her rain-splattered glasses, Meg’s eyes were impossible to read. “A murr-murr-key?” “A giant ant. There must be a colony somewhere in the woods.”

Meg gagged. “I hate bugs.”

 

That made sense for a daughter of the agriculture goddess, but to me the dead ant didn’t seem any grosser than the piles of garbage in which we often swam.

 

“Well, don’t worry,” I said. “This one is dead. Whatever killed it must’ve had powerful jaws to crack that shell.”

“Not comforting. Are—are these things dangerous?”

I laughed. “Oh, yes. They range in size from as small as dogs to larger than grizzly bears. One time I watched a colony of myrmekes attack a Greek army in India. It was hilarious. They spit acid that can melt through bronze armor and—”

“Apollo.”

 

My smile faded. I reminded myself I was no longer a spectator. These ants could kill us. Easily. And Meg was scared.

 

“Right,” I said. “Well, the rain should keep the myrmekes in their tunnels. Just don’t make yourself an attractive target. They like bright, shiny things.”

 

“Like flashlights?” “Um…”

Meg handed me the flashlight. “Lead on, Apollo.” I thought that was unfair, but we forged ahead.

 

After another hour or so (surely the woods weren’t this big), the rain tapered off, leaving the ground steaming.

 

The air got warmer. The humidity approached bathhouse levels. Thick white vapor curled off the tree branches.

“What’s going on?” Meg wiped her face. “Feels like a tropical rain forest now.”

I had no answer. Then, up ahead, I heard a massive flushing sound—like water being forced through pipes…or fissures.

I couldn’t help but smile. “A geyser.”

“A geyser,” Meg repeated. “Like Old Faithful?”

 

“This is excellent news. Perhaps we can get directions. Our lost demigods might have even found sanctuary there!”

“With the geysers,” Meg said.

“No, my ridiculous girl,” I said. “With the geyser gods. Assuming they’re in a good mood, this could be great.”

“And if they’re in a bad mood?”

“Then we’ll cheer them up before they can boil us. Follow me!”

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