The Hidden Oracle chapter 3

Used to be goddy

Now uptown feeling shoddy

Bah, haiku don’t rhyme

 

AS WE TRUDGED up Madison Avenue, my mind swirled with questions: Why hadn’t Zeus given me a winter coat? Why did Percy Jackson live so far uptown? Why did pedestrians keep staring at me?

 

I wondered if my divine radiance was starting to return. Perhaps the New Yorkers were awed by my obvious power and unearthly good looks.

Meg McCaffrey set me straight.

“You smell,” she said. “You look like you’ve just been mugged.” “I have just been mugged. Also enslaved by a small child.”

 

“It’s not slavery.” She chewed off a piece of her thumb cuticle and spit it out. “It’s more like mutual cooperation.”

 

“Mutual in the sense that you give orders and I am forced to cooperate?” “Yep.” She stopped in front of a storefront window. “See? You look gross.”

 

My reflection stared back at me, except it was not my reflection. It couldn’t be. The face was the same as on Lester Papadopoulos’s ID.

 

I looked about sixteen. My medium-length hair was dark and curly—a style I had rocked in Athenian times, and again in the 1970s. My eyes were blue. My face was pleasing enough in a dorkish way, but it was marred by a swollen eggplant-colored nose, which had dripped a gruesome mustache of blood down my upper lip. Even worse, my cheeks were covered with some sort of rash that looked suspiciously like…My heart climbed into my throat.

“Horrors!” I cried. “Is that—Is that acne?”

 

Immortal gods do not get acne. It is one of our inalienable rights. Yet I leaned closer to the glass and saw that my skin was indeed a scarred landscape of whiteheads and pustules.

 

I balled my fists and wailed to the cruel sky, “Zeus, what have I done to deserve this?” Meg tugged at my sleeve. “You’re going to get yourself arrested.”

“What does it matter? I have been made a teenager, and not even one with perfect skin! I bet I don’t even have…” With a cold sense of dread, I lifted my shirt. My midriff was covered with a floral pattern of bruises from my fall into the Dumpster and my subsequent kicking. But even worse, I had flab.

 

“Oh, no, no, no.” I staggered around the sidewalk, hoping the flab would not follow me. “Where are my eight-pack abs? I always have eight-pack abs. I never have love handles. Never in four thousand years!”

 

Meg made another snorting laugh. “Sheesh, crybaby, you’re fine.” “I’m fat!”

“You’re average. Average people don’t have eight-pack abs. C’mon.”

I wanted to protest that I was not average nor a person, but with growing despair, I realized the term now fit me perfectly.

 

On the other side of the storefront window, a security guard’s face loomed, scowling at me. I allowed Meg to pull me farther down the street.

 

She skipped along, occasionally stopping to pick up a coin or swing herself around a streetlamp. The child seemed unfazed by the cold weather, the dangerous journey ahead, and the fact that I was suffering from acne.

 

“How are you so calm?” I demanded. “You are a demigod, walking with a god, on your way to a camp to meet others of your kind. Doesn’t any of that surprise you?”

 

“Eh.” She folded one of my twenty-dollar bills into a paper airplane. “I’ve seen a bunch of weird stuff.”

 

I was tempted to ask what could be weirder than the morning we had just had. I decided I might not be able to stand the stress of knowing. “Where are you from?”

“I told you. The alley.”

“No, but…your parents? Family? Friends?”

 

A ripple of discomfort passed over her face. She returned her attention to her twenty-dollar airplane. “Not important.”

 

My highly advanced people-reading skills told me she was hiding something, but that was not unusual for demigods. For children blessed with an immortal parent, they were strangely sensitive about their backgrounds. “And you’ve never heard of Camp Half-Blood? Or Camp Jupiter?”

“Nuh-uh.” She tested the airplane’s point on her fingertip. “How much farther to Perry’s house?” “Percy’s. I’m not sure. A few more blocks…I think.”

 

That seemed to satisfy Meg. She hopscotched ahead, throwing the cash airplane and retrieving it. She cartwheeled through the intersection at East Seventy-Second Street—her clothes a flurry of traffic-light colors so bright I worried the drivers might get confused and run her down. Fortunately, New York drivers were used to swerving around oblivious pedestrians.

 

I decided Meg must be a feral demigod. They were rare but not unheard of. Without any support network, without being discovered by other demigods or taken in for proper training, she had still managed to survive. But her luck would not last. Monsters usually began hunting down and killing young heroes around the time they turned thirteen, when their true powers began to manifest. Meg did not have long. She needed to be brought to Camp Half-Blood as much as I did. She was fortunate to have met me.

 

(I know that last statement seems obvious. Everyone who meets me is fortunate, but you take my meaning.)

 

Had I been my usual omniscient self, I could have gleaned Meg’s destiny. I could have looked into her soul and seen all I needed to know about her godly parentage, her powers, her motives and secrets.

 

Now I was blind to such things. I could only be sure she was a demigod because she had successfully claimed my service. Zeus had affirmed her right with a clap of thunder. I felt the binding upon me like a shroud of tightly wrapped banana peels. Whoever Meg McCaffrey was, however she had happened to find me, our fates were now intertwined.

 

It was almost as embarrassing as the acne. We turned east on Eighty-Second Street.

By the time we reached Second Avenue, the neighborhood started to look familiar—rows of apartment buildings, hardware shops, convenience stores, and Indian restaurants. I knew that Percy Jackson lived around here somewhere, but my trips across the sky in the sun chariot had given me

 

something of a Google Earth orientation. I wasn’t used to traveling at street level.

 

Also, in this mortal form, my flawless memory had become…flawed. Mortal fears and needs clouded my thoughts. I wanted to eat. I wanted to use the restroom. My body hurt. My clothes stank. I felt as if my brain had been stuffed with wet cotton. Honestly, how do you humans stand it?

After a few more blocks, a mixture of sleet and rain began to fall. Meg tried to catch the precipitation on her tongue, which I thought a very ineffective way to get a drink—and of dirty water, no less. I shivered and concentrated on happy thoughts: the Bahamas, the Nine Muses in perfect harmony, the many horrible punishments I would visit on Cade and Mikey when I became a god again.

 

I still wondered about their boss, and how he had known where I would fall to earth. No mortal could’ve had that knowledge. In fact, the more I thought about it, I didn’t see how even a god (other than myself) could have foreseen the future so accurately. After all, I had been the god of prophecy, master of the Oracle of Delphi, distributor of the highest quality sneak previews of destiny for millennia.

 

Of course, I had no shortage of enemies. One of the natural consequences of being so awesome is that I attracted envy from all quarters. But I could only think of one adversary who might be able to tell the future. And if he came looking for me in my weakened state…

 

I tamped down that thought. I had enough to worry about. No point scaring myself to death with what-

 

ifs.

We began searching side streets, checking names on apartment mailboxes and intercom panels. The Upper East Side had a surprising number of Jacksons. I found that annoying.

 

After several failed attempts, we turned a corner and there—parked under a crape myrtle—sat an older model blue Prius. Its hood bore the unmistakable dents of pegasus hooves. (How was I sure? I know my hoof marks. Also, normal horses do not gallop over Toyotas. Pegasi often do.)

“Aha,” I told Meg. “We’re getting close.”

 

Half a block down, I recognized the building: a five-story brick row house with rusty air conditioner units sagging from the windows. “Voilà!” I cried.

 

At the front steps, Meg stopped as if she’d run into an invisible barrier. She stared back toward Second Avenue, her dark eyes turbulent.

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Thought I saw them again.”

“Them?” I followed her gaze but saw nothing unusual. “The thugs from the alley?”

“No. Couple of…” She waggled her fingers. “Shiny blobs. Saw them back on Park Avenue.”

 

My pulse increased from an andante tempo to a lively allegretto. “Shiny blobs? Why didn’t you say anything?”

 

She tapped the temples of her glasses. “I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff. Told you that. Mostly, things don’t bother me, but…”

“But if they are following us,” I said, “that would be bad.”

I scanned the street again. I saw nothing amiss, but I didn’t doubt Meg had seen shiny blobs. Many spirits could appear that way. My own father, Zeus, once took the form of a shiny blob to woo a mortal woman. (Why the mortal woman found that attractive, I have no idea.)

 

“We should get inside,” I said. “Percy Jackson will help us.”

 

Still, Meg held back. She had shown no fear while pelting muggers with garbage in a blind alley, but now she seemed to be having second thoughts about ringing a doorbell. It occurred to me she might have met demigods before. Perhaps those meetings had not gone well.

 

“Meg,” I said, “I realize some demigods are not good. I could tell you stories of all the ones I’ve had to kill or transform into herbs—”

“Herbs?”

“But Percy Jackson has always been reliable. You have nothing to fear. Besides, he likes me. I taught

 

him everything he knows.” She frowned. “You did?”

 

I found her innocence somewhat charming. So many obvious things she did not know. “Of course. Now let’s go up.”

 

I rang the buzzer. A few moments later, the garbled voice of a woman answered, “Yes?” “Hello,” I said. “This is Apollo.”

Static.

“The god Apollo,” I said, thinking perhaps I should be more specific. “Is Percy home?”

 

More static, followed by two voices in muted conversation. The front door buzzed. I pushed it open. Just before I stepped inside, I caught a flash of movement in the corner of my eye. I peered down the sidewalk but again saw nothing.

 

Perhaps it had been a reflection. Or a whirl of sleet. Or perhaps it had been a shiny blob. My scalp tingled with apprehension.

“What?” Meg asked.

“Probably nothing.” I forced a cheerful tone. I did not want Meg bolting off when we were so close to reaching safety. We were bound together now. I would have to follow her if she ordered me to, and I did not fancy living in the alley with her forever. “Let’s go up. We can’t keep our hosts waiting.”

 

 

After all I had done for Percy Jackson, I expected delight upon my arrival. A tearful welcome, a few burnt offerings, and a small festival in my honor would not have been inappropriate.

Instead, the young man swung open the apartment door and said, “Why?”

As usual, I was struck by his resemblance to his father, Poseidon. He had the same sea-green eyes, the same dark tousled hair, the same handsome features that could shift from humor to anger so easily. However, Percy Jackson did not favor his father’s chosen garb of beach shorts and Hawaiian shirts. He was dressed in ragged jeans and a blue hoodie with the words AHS SWIM TEAM stitched across the front.

 

Meg inched back into the hallway, hiding behind me.

I tried for a smile. “Percy Jackson, my blessings upon you! I am in need of assistance.” Percy’s eyes darted from me to Meg. “Who’s your friend?”

 

“This is Meg McCaffrey,” I said, “a demigod who must be taken to Camp Half-Blood. She rescued me from street thugs.”

 

“Rescued…” Percy scanned my battered face. “You mean the ‘beat-up teenager’ look isn’t just a disguise? Dude, what happened to you?”

 

“I may have mentioned the street thugs.” “But you’re a god.”

 

“About that…I was a god.” Percy blinked. “Was?”

“Also,” I said, “I’m fairly certain we’re being followed by malicious spirits.”

 

If I didn’t know how much Percy Jackson adored me, I would have sworn he was about to punch me in my already-broken nose.

He sighed. “Maybe you two should come inside.”

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