The Hidden Oracle chapter 38

After the sneezing

Healing peeps, parsing limericks

Worst God Award? Me

 

THE PLAGUE SPREAD.

 

That was the price of our victory: a massive outbreak of hay fever. By nightfall, most of the campers were dizzy, groggy, and heavily congested, though I was pleased that none of them sneezed their heads off, because we were running low on bandages and duct tape.

 

Will Solace and I spent the evening caring for the wounded. Will took the lead, which was fine with me; I was exhausted. Mostly I splinted arms, distributed cold medicine and tissues, and tried to keep Harley from stealing the infirmary’s entire supply of smiley-face stickers, which he plastered all over his flamethrower. I was grateful for the distraction, since it kept me from thinking too much about the day’s painful events.

 

Sherman Yang graciously agreed not to kill Nico for tossing him out of his chariot, or me for damaging it, though I had the feeling the son of Ares was keeping his options open for later.

 

Chiron provided healing poultices for the most extreme cases of hay fever. This included Chiara Benvenuti, whose good luck had, for once, abandoned her. Strangely enough, Damien White got sick right after he learned that Chiara was sick. The two had cots next to each other in the infirmary, which I found a little suspicious, even though they kept sniping at each other whenever they knew they were being watched.

 

Percy Jackson spent several hours recruiting whales and hippocampi to help him haul away the Colossus. He decided it would be easiest to tow it underwater to Poseidon’s palace, where it could be repurposed as garden statuary. I was not sure how I felt about that. I imagined Poseidon would replace the statue’s gorgeous face with his own weathered, bearded mien. Still, I wanted the Colossus gone, and I doubted it would have fit in the camp’s recycling bins.

 

Thanks to Will’s healing and a hot dinner, the demigods I had rescued from the woods quickly got back to full strength. (Paolo claimed it was because he waved a Brazilian-flag bandana over them, and I was not about to argue.)

 

As for the camp itself, the damage might have been much worse. The canoe dock could be rebuilt. The Colossus’s footstep craters could be repurposed as convenient foxholes or koi ponds.

The dining pavilion was a total loss, but Nyssa and Harley were confident that Annabeth Chase could redesign the place next time she was here. With luck, it would be rebuilt in time for the summer.

 

The only other major damage was to the Demeter cabin. I had not realized it during the battle, but the

 

Colossus had managed to step on it before turning around for the beach. In retrospect, its path of destruction appeared almost purposeful, as if the automaton had waded ashore, stomped Cabin Four, and headed back out to sea.

Given what had happened with Meg McCaffrey, I had a hard time not seeing this as a bad omen. Miranda Gardiner and Billie Ng were given temporary bunks in the Hermes cabin, but for a long time that night they sat stunned among the smashed ruins as daisies popped up all around them from the cold winter ground.

 

Despite my exhaustion, I slept fitfully. I did not mind Kayla and Austin’s constant sneezing, or Will’s gentle snoring. I did not even mind the hyacinths blooming in the windowsill, filling the room with their melancholy perfume. But I could not stop thinking of the dryads raising their arms to the flames in the woods, and about Nero, and Meg. The Arrow of Dodona stayed silent, hanging in my quiver on the wall, but I suspected it would have more annoying Shakespearean advice soon. I did not relish what it might telleth me about my future.

 

At sunrise, I rose quietly, took my bow and quiver and combat ukulele, and hiked to the summit of Half-Blood Hill. The guardian dragon, Peleus, did not recognize me. When I came too close to the Golden Fleece, he hissed, so I had to sit some distance away at the foot of the Athena Parthenos.

I didn’t mind not being recognized. At the moment, I did not want to be Apollo. All the destruction I saw below me…it was my fault. I had been blind and complacent. I had allowed the emperors of Rome, including one of my own descendants, to rise to power in the shadows. I had let my once-great network of Oracles collapse until even Delphi was lost. I had almost caused the death of Camp Half-Blood itself.

 

And Meg McCaffrey…Oh, Meg, where were you?

Do what you need to do, she had told me. That’s my final order.

 

Her order had been vague enough to allow me to pursue her. After all, we were bound together now. What I needed to do was to find her. I wondered if Meg had phrased her order that way on purpose, or if that was just wishful thinking on my part.

 

I gazed up at the serene alabaster face of Athena. In real life, she didn’t look so pale and aloof—well, not most of the time, anyway. I pondered why the sculptor, Phidias, had chosen to make her look so unapproachable, and whether Athena approved. We gods often debated how much humans could change our very nature simply by the way they pictured us or imagined us. During the eighteenth century, for instance, I could not escape the white powdered wig, no matter how hard I tried. Among immortals, our reliance on humans was an uncomfortable subject.

Perhaps I deserved my present form. After my carelessness and foolishness, perhaps humanity should see me as nothing but Lester Papadopoulos.

 

I heaved a sigh. “Athena, what would you do in my place? Something wise and practical, I suppose.” Athena offered no response. She stared calmly at the horizon, taking the long view, as always.

 

I didn’t need the wisdom goddess to tell me what I must do. I should leave Camp Half-Blood immediately, before the campers woke. They had taken me in to protect me, and I had nearly gotten them all killed. I couldn’t bear to endanger them any longer.

 

But, oh, how I wanted to stay with Will, Kayla, Austin—my mortal children. I wanted to help Harley put smiley faces on his flamethrower. I wanted to flirt with Chiara and steal her away from Damien…or perhaps steal Damien away from Chiara, I wasn’t sure yet. I wanted to improve my music and archery through that strange activity known as practice. I wanted to have a home.

Leave, I told myself. Hurry.

 

Because I was a coward, I waited too long. Below me, the cabin lights flickered on. Campers emerged from their doorways. Sherman Yang began his morning stretches. Harley jogged around the green, holding his Leo Valdez beacon high with the hope it would finally work.

 

At last, a pair of familiar figures spotted me. They approached from different directions—the Big

 

House and Cabin Three—hiking up the hill to see me: Rachel Dare and Percy Jackson.

 

 

“I know what you’re thinking,” Rachel said. “Don’t do it.” I feigned surprise. “Can you read my mind, Miss Dare?” “I don’t need to. I know you, Lord Apollo.”

 

A week ago, the idea would have made me laugh. A mortal could not know me. I had lived for four millennia. Merely looking upon my true form would have vaporized any human. Now, though, Rachel’s words seemed perfectly reasonable. With Lester Papadopoulos, what you saw was what you got. There really wasn’t much to know.

“Don’t call me Lord,” I sighed. “I am just a mortal teen. I do not belong at this camp.”

 

Percy sat next to me. He squinted at the sunrise, the sea breeze tousling his hair. “Yeah, I used to think I didn’t belong here either.”

 

“It’s not the same,” I said. “You humans change and grow and mature. Gods do not.” Percy faced me. “You sure about that? You seem pretty different.”

 

I think he meant that as a compliment, but I didn’t find his words reassuring. If I was becoming more fully human, that was hardly a cause for celebration. True, I had mustered a few godly powers at important moments—a burst of divine strength against the Germani, a hay fever arrow against the Colossus—but I could not rely on those abilities. I didn’t even understand how I had summoned them. The fact that I had limits, and that I couldn’t be sure where those limits were…Well, that made me feel much more like Lester Papadopoulos than Apollo.

 

“The other Oracles must be found and secured,” I said. “I cannot do that unless I leave Camp Half-Blood. And I cannot risk anyone else’s life.”

 

Rachel sat on my other side. “You sound certain. Did you get a prophecy from the grove?” I shuddered. “I fear so.”

 

Rachel cupped her hands on her knees. “Kayla said you were talking to an arrow yesterday. I’m guessing it’s wood from Dodona?”

“Wait,” Percy said. “You found a talking arrow that gave you a prophecy?”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “The arrow talks, but I got the prophecy from the grove itself. The Arrow of Dodona just gives random advice. He’s quite annoying.”

The arrow buzzed in my quiver.

“At any rate,” I continued, “I must leave the camp. The Triumvirate means to possess all the ancient Oracles. I have to stop them. Once I have defeated the former emperors…only then will I be able to face my old enemy Python and free the Oracle of Delphi. After that…if I survive…perhaps Zeus will restore me to Olympus.”

 

Rachel tugged at a strand of her hair. “You know it’s too dangerous to do all that alone, right?” “Listen to her,” Percy urged. “Chiron told me about Nero and this weird holding company of his.” “I appreciate the offer of assistance, but—”

 

“Whoa.” Percy held up his hands. “Just to be clear, I’m not offering to go with you. I still have to finish my senior year, pass my DSTOMP and my SAT, and avoid getting killed by my girlfriend. But I’m sure we can get you some other helpers.”

“I’ll go,” Rachel said.

 

I shook my head. “My enemies would love to capture someone as dear to me as the priestess of Delphi. Besides, I need you and Miranda Gardiner to stay here and study the Grove of Dodona. For now, it is our only source of prophecy. And since our communication problems have not gone away, learning to use the grove’s power is all the more critical.”

 

Rachel tried to hide it, but I could see her disappointment in the lines around her mouth. “What about

 

Meg?” she asked. “You’ll try to find her, won’t you?”

 

She might as well have plunged the Arrow of Dodona into my chest. I gazed at the woods—that hazy green expanse that had swallowed young McCaffrey. For a brief moment, I felt like Nero. I wanted to burn the whole place down.

 

“I will try,” I said, “but Meg doesn’t want to be found. She’s under the influence of her stepfather.” Percy traced his finger across the Athena Parthenos’s big toe. “I’ve lost too many people to bad

 

influence: Ethan Nakamura, Luke Castellan…We almost lost Nico, too….” He shook his head. “No. No more. You can’t give up on Meg. You guys are bound together. Besides, she’s one of the good guys.”

 

“I’ve known many of the good guys,” I said. “Most of them got turned into beasts, or statues, or—or trees….” My voice broke.

 

Rachel put her hand over mine. “Things can turn out differently, Apollo. That’s the nice thing about being human. We only have one life, but we can choose what kind of story it’s going to be.”

That seemed hopelessly optimistic. I had spent too many centuries watching the same patterns of behavior be repeated over and over, all by humans who thought they were being terribly clever and doing something that had never been done before. They thought they were crafting their own stories, but they were only tracing over the same old narratives, generation after generation.

Still…perhaps human persistence was an asset. They never seemed to give up hope. Every so often they did manage to surprise me. I never anticipated Alexander the Great, Robin Hood, or Billie Holiday. For that matter, I never anticipated Percy Jackson and Rachel Elizabeth Dare.

 

“I—I hope you’re right,” I said.

She patted my hand. “Tell me the prophecy you heard in the grove.”

 

I took a shaky breath. I didn’t want to speak the words. I was afraid they might wake the grove and drown us in a cacophony of prophecies, bad jokes, and infomercials. But I recited the lines:

 

ere once was a god named Apollo o plunged in a cave blue and hollow n a three-seater

bronze fire-eater

forced death and madness to swallow”

 

Rachel covered her mouth. “A limerick?” “I know!” I wailed. “I’m doomed!”

“Wait.” Percy’s eyes glittered. “Those lines…Do they mean what I think?”

“Well,” I said, “I believe the blue cave refers to the Oracle of Trophonius. It was a…a very dangerous ancient Oracle.”

 

“No,” Percy said. “The other lines. Three-seater, bronze fire-eater, yadda yadda.” “Oh. I have no clue about those.”

 

“Harley’s beacon.” Percy laughed, though I could not understand why he was so pleased. “He said you gave it a tuning adjustment? I guess that did the trick.”

 

Rachel squinted at him. “Percy, what are you…” Her expression went slack. “Oh. Oh.” “Were there any other lines?” Percy urged. “Like, except for the limerick?”

“Several,” I admitted. “Just bits and pieces I didn’t understand. The fall of the sun; the final verse.

 

Um, Indiana, banana. Happiness approaches. Something about pages burning.”

Percy slapped his knee. “There you go. Happiness approaches. Happy is a name—well, the English version, anyway.” He stood and scanned the horizon. His eyes fixed on something in the distance. A grin spread across his face. “Yep. Apollo, your escort is on the way.”

 

I followed his gaze. Spiraling down from the clouds was a large winged creature that glinted of

 

Celestial bronze. On its back were two human-size figures.

 

Their descent was silent, but in my mind a joyous fanfare of Valdezinator music proclaimed the good news.

Leo had returned.

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