The Hidden Oracle chapter 22

Up in my business

Always burning Oracles

Romans gonna hate

 

I WAS A DRAMATIC GOD.

 

I thought my last statement was a great line. I expected gasps, perhaps some organ music in the background. Maybe the lights would go out just before I could say more. Moments later, I would be found dead with a knife in my back. That would be exciting!

Wait. I’m mortal. Murder would kill me. Never mind.

 

At any rate, none of that happened. My three companions just stared at me. “Four other Oracles,” Rachel said. “You mean you have four other Pythias—” “No, my dear. There is only one Pythia—you. Delphi is absolutely unique.”

 

Rachel still looked like she wanted to jam a number ten bristle paintbrush up my nose. “So these other four non-unique Oracles…”

 

“Well, one was the Sybil of Cumae.” I wiped the sweat off my palms. (Why did mortal palms sweat?) “You know, she wrote the Sibylline Books—those prophecies that Ella the harpy memorized.”

 

Meg looked back and forth between us. “A harpy…like those chicken ladies who clean up after lunch?”

 

Chiron smiled. “Ella is a very special harpy, Meg. Years ago, she somehow came across a copy of the prophetic books, which we thought were burned before the Fall of Rome. Right now, our friends at Camp Jupiter are trying to reconstruct them based on Ella’s recollections.”

 

Rachel crossed her arms. “And the other three Oracles? I’m sure none of them was a beautiful young priestess whom you praised for her…what was it?…‘scintillating conversation’?”

“Ah…” I wasn’t sure why, but it felt like my acne was turning into live insects and crawling across my face. “Well, according to my extensive research—”

“Some books he flipped through last night,” Meg clarified.

“Ahem! There was an Oracle at Erythaea, and another at the Cave of Trophonius.” “Goodness,” Chiron said. “I’d forgotten about those two.”

 

I shrugged. I remembered almost nothing about them either. They had been some of my less successful prophetic franchises.

 

“And the fifth,” I said, “was the Grove of Dodona.” “A grove,” Meg said. “Like trees.”

 

“Yes, Meg, like trees. Groves are typically composed of trees, rather than, say, Fudgsicles. Dodona

 

was a stand of sacred oaks planted by the Mother Goddess in the first days of the world. They were ancient even when the Olympians were born.”

 

“The Mother Goddess?” Rachel shivered in her patina jacket. “Please tell me you don’t mean Gaea.” “No, thankfully. I mean Rhea, Queen of the Titans, the mother of the first generation of Olympian gods.

 

Her sacred trees could actually speak. Sometimes they issued prophecies.” “The voices in the woods,” Meg guessed.

 

“Exactly. I believe the Grove of Dodona has regrown itself here in the woods at camp. In my dreams, I saw a crowned woman imploring me to find her Oracle. I believe it was Rhea, though I still don’t understand why she was wearing a peace symbol or using the term dig it.”

 

“A peace symbol?” Chiron asked. “A large brass one,” I confirmed.

Rachel drummed her fingers on the couch’s armrest. “If Rhea is a Titan, isn’t she evil?”

 

“Not all Titans were bad,” I said. “Rhea was a gentle soul. She sided with the gods in their first great war. I think she wants us to succeed. She doesn’t want her grove in the hands of our enemies.”

 

Chiron’s tail twitched. “My friend, Rhea has not been seen for millennia. Her grove was burned in the ancient times. Emperor Theodosius ordered the last oak cut down in—”

 

“I know.” I got a stabbing pain right between my eyes, as I always did when someone mentioned Theodosius. I now recalled that the bully had closed all the ancient temples across the empire, basically evicting us Olympian gods. I used to have an archery target with his face on it. “Nevertheless, many things from the old days have survived or regenerated. The Labyrinth has rebuilt itself. Why couldn’t a grove of sacred trees spring up again right here in this valley?”

 

Meg pushed herself deeper into the cushions. “This is all weird.” Leave it to the young McCaffrey to summarize our conversation so effectively. “So if the tree voices are sacred and stuff, why are they making people get lost?”

 

“For once, you ask a good question.” I hoped such praise wouldn’t go to Meg’s head. “In the old days, the priests of Dodona would take care of the trees, pruning them, watering them, and channeling their voices by hanging wind chimes in their branches.”

“How would that help?” Meg asked.

 

“I don’t know. I’m not a tree priest. But with proper care, these trees could divine the future.” Rachel smoothed her skirt. “And without proper care?”

 

“The voices were unfocused,” I said. “A wild choir of disharmony.” I paused, quite pleased with that line. I was hoping someone might write it down for posterity, but no one did. “Untended, the grove could most definitely drive mortals to madness.”

 

Chiron furrowed his brow. “So our missing campers are wandering in the trees, perhaps already insane from the voices.”

“Or they’re dead,” Meg added.

“No.” I could not abide that thought. “No, they are still alive. The Beast is using them, trying to bait me.”

 

“How can you be sure?” Rachel asked. “And why? If Python already controls Delphi, why are these other Oracles so important?”

 

I gazed at the wall formerly graced by my picture. Alas, no answers magically appeared in the whitewashed space. “I’m not sure. I believe our enemies want to cut us off from every possible source of prophecy. Without a way to see and direct our fates, we will wither and die—gods and mortals alike, anyone who opposes the Triumvirate.”

 

Meg turned upside down on the sofa and kicked off her red shoes. “They’re strangling our taproots.” She wriggled her toes to demonstrate.

 

I looked back at Rachel, hoping she would excuse my street urchin overlord’s bad manners. “As for

 

why the Grove of Dodona is so important, Python mentioned that it was the one Oracle he could not control. I don’t understand exactly why—perhaps because Dodona is the only Oracle that has no connection with me. Its power comes from Rhea. So if the grove is working, and it is free of Python’s influence, and it is here at Camp Half-Blood—”

 

“It could provide us with prophecies.” Chiron’s eyes gleamed. “It could give us a chance against our enemies.”

 

I gave Rachel an apologetic smile. “Of course, we’d rather have our beloved Oracle of Delphi working again. And we will, eventually. But for now, the Grove of Dodona could be our best hope.” Meg’s hair swept the floor. Her face was now the color of one of my sacred cattle. “Aren’t

 

prophecies all twisted and mysterious and murky, and people die trying to escape them?”

“Meg,” I said, “you can’t trust those reviews on RateMyOracle.com. The hotness factor for the Sibyl of Cumae, for instance, is completely off. I remember that quite clearly.”

Rachel put her chin on her fist. “Really? Do tell.”

“Uh, what I meant to say: the Grove of Dodona is a benevolent force. It has helped heroes before. The masthead of the original Argo, for instance, was carved from a branch of the sacred trees. It could speak to the Argonauts and give them guidance.”

 

“Mm.” Chiron nodded. “And that’s why our mysterious Beast wants the grove burned.” “Apparently,” I said. “And that’s why we have to save it.”

 

Meg rolled backward off the couch. Her legs knocked over the three-legged coffee table, spilling our Arizona tea and crackers. “Oops.”

 

I ground my mortal teeth, which would not last a year if I kept hanging around Meg. Rachel and Chiron wisely ignored my young friend’s display of Megness.

 

“Apollo…” The old centaur watched a waterfall of tea trickling from the edge of the table. “If you are right about Dodona, how do we proceed? We are already shorthanded. If we send search teams into the woods, we have no guarantee they’ll come back.”

 

Meg brushed the hair out of her eyes. “We’ll go. Just Apollo and me.” My tongue attempted to hide in the depths of my throat. “We—we will?”

 

“You said you gotta do a bunch of trials or whatever to prove you’re worthy, right? This’ll be the first one.”

 

Part of me knew she was right, but the remnants of my godly self rebelled at the idea. I never did my own dirty work. I would rather have picked a nice group of heroes and sent them to their deaths—or, you know, glorious success.

 

Yet Rhea had been clear in my dream: finding the Oracle was my job. And thanks to the cruelty of Zeus, where I went, Meg went. For all I knew, Zeus was aware of the Beast and his plans, and he had sent me here specifically to deal with the situation…a thought that did not make me any more likely to get him a nice tie for Father’s Day.

 

I also remembered the other part of my dream: the Beast in his mauve suit, encouraging me to find the Oracle so he could burn it down. There was still too much I didn’t understand, but I had to act. Austin and Kayla were depending on me.

 

Rachel put her hand on my knee, which made me flinch. Surprisingly, she did not inflict any pain. Her gaze was more earnest than angry. “Apollo, you have to try. If we can get a glimpse of the future…well, it may be the only way to get things back to normal.” She looked longingly at the blank walls of her cave.

“I’d like to have a future again.”

Chiron shifted his forelegs. “What do you need from us, old friend? How can we help?”

I glanced at Meg. Sadly, I could tell that we were in agreement. We were stuck with each other. We couldn’t risk anyone else.

“Meg is right,” I said. “We have to do this ourselves. We should leave immediately, but—”

 

“We’ve been up all night,” Meg said. “We need some sleep.” Wonderful, I thought. Now Meg is finishing my sentences.

 

This time I could not argue with her logic. Despite my fervor to rush into the woods and save my children, I had to proceed cautiously. I could not mess up this rescue. And I was increasingly certain that the Beast would keep his captives alive for now. He needed them to lure me into his trap.

 

Chiron rose on his front hooves. “This evening, then. Rest and prepare, my heroes. I fear you will need all your strength and wits for what comes next.”

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