The Hidden Oracle chapter 8

Peaches in combat

I am hanging it up now My brain exploded

I WILL NOT SAY my life passed before my eyes.

 

I wish it had. That would’ve taken several months, giving me time to figure out an escape plan. Instead, my regrets passed before my eyes. Despite being a gloriously perfect being, I do have a few

 

regrets. I remembered that day at Abbey Road Studios, when my envy led me to set rancor in the hearts of John and Paul and break up the Beatles. I remembered Achilles falling on the plains of Troy, cut down by an unworthy archer because of my wrath.

 

I saw Hyacinthus, his bronze shoulders and dark ringlets gleaming in the sunlight. Standing on the sideline of the discus field, he gave me a brilliant smile. Even you can’t throw that far, he teased.

 

Watch me, I said. I threw the discus, then stared in horror as a gust of wind made it veer, inexplicably, toward Hyacinthus’s handsome face.

 

And of course I saw her—the other love of my life—her fair skin transforming into bark, her hair sprouting green leaves, her eyes hardening into rivulets of sap.

 

Those memories brought back so much pain, you might think I would welcome the glittering plague mist descending over me.

 

Yet my new mortal self rebelled. I was too young to die! I hadn’t even had my first kiss! (Yes, my godly catalogue of exes was filled with more beautiful people than a Kardashian party guest list, but none of that seemed real to me.)

 

If I’m being totally honest, I have to confess something else: all gods fear death, even when we are not encased in mortal forms.

 

That may seem silly. We are immortal. But as you’ve seen, immortality can be taken away. (In my case, three stinking times.)

 

Gods know about fading. They know about being forgotten over the centuries. The idea of ceasing to exist altogether terrifies us. In fact—well, Zeus would not like me sharing this information, and if you tell anyone, I will deny I ever said it—but the truth is we gods are a little in awe of you mortals. You spend your whole lives knowing you will die. No matter how many friends and relatives you have, your puny existence will quickly be forgotten. How do you cope with it? Why are you not running around constantly screaming and pulling your hair out? Your bravery, I must admit, is quite admirable.

 

Now where was I? Right. I was dying.

 

I rolled around in the mud, holding my breath. I tried to brush off the disease cloud, but it was not as easy as swatting a fly or an uppity mortal.

 

I caught a glimpse of Meg, playing a deadly game of tag with the third nosos, trying to keep a peach tree between herself and the spirit. She yelled something to me, but her voice seemed tinny and far away. Somewhere to my left, the ground shook. A miniature geyser erupted from the field. Percy crawled

 

toward it desperately. He thrust his face in the water, washing away the smoke. My eyesight began to dim.

 

Percy struggled to his feet. He ripped out the source of the geyser—an irrigation pipe—and turned the water on me.

 

Normally I do not like being doused. Every time I go camping with Artemis, she likes to wake me up with a bucket of ice-cold water. But in this case, I didn’t mind.

 

The water disrupted the smoke, allowing me to roll away and gasp for air. Nearby, our two gaseous enemies re-formed as dripping wet corpses, their yellow eyes glowing with annoyance.

Meg yelled again. This time I understood her words. “GET DOWN!”

 

I found this inconsiderate, since I’d only just gotten up. All around the orchard, the frozen blackened remnants of the harvest were beginning to levitate.

 

Believe me, in four thousand years I have seen some strange things. I have seen the dreaming face of Ouranos etched in stars across the heavens, and the full fury of Typhon as he raged across the earth. I’ve seen men turn into snakes, ants turn into men, and otherwise rational people dance the macarena.

But never before had I seen an uprising of frozen fruit.

 

Percy and I hit the ground as peaches shot around the orchard, ricocheting off trees like eight balls, ripping through the nosoi’s cadaverous bodies. If I had been standing up, I would have been killed, but Meg simply stood there, unfazed and unhurt, as frozen dead fruit zinged around her.

 

All three nosoi collapsed, riddled with holes. Every piece of fruit dropped to the ground. Percy looked up, his eyes red and puffy. “Whah jus happened?”

 

He sounded congested, which meant he hadn’t completely escaped the effects of the plague cloud, but at least he wasn’t dead. That was generally a good sign.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Meg, is it safe?”

She was staring in amazement at the carnage of fruit, mangled corpses, and broken tree limbs. “I—I’m not sure.”

“How’d you do thah?” Percy snuffled.

Meg looked horrified. “I didn’t! I just knew it would happen.”

 

One of the cadavers began to stir. It got up, wobbling on its heavily perforated legs. “But you did doooo it,” the spirit growled. “Yooou are strong, child.”

The other two corpses rose.

“Not strong enough,” said the second nosos. “We will finish you now.”

The third spirit bared his rotten teeth. “Your guardian would be sooooo disappointed.”

Guardian? Perhaps the spirit meant me. When in doubt, I usually assumed the conversation was about

 

me.

 

Meg looked as if she’d been punched in the gut. Her face paled. Her arms trembled. She stamped her foot and yelled, “NO!”

 

More peaches swirled into the air. This time the fruit blurred together in a fructose dust devil, until standing in front of Meg was a creature like a pudgy human toddler wearing only a linen diaper. Protruding from his back were wings made of leafy branches. His babyish face might have been cute except for the glowing green eyes and pointy fangs. The creature snarled and snapped at the air.

 

“Oh, no.” Percy shook his head. “I hate these things.”

The three nosoi also did not look pleased. They edged away from the snarling baby.

 

“Wh-what is it?” Meg asked.

 

I stared at her in disbelief. She had to be the cause of this fruit-based strangeness, but she looked as shocked as we were. Unfortunately, if Meg didn’t know how she had summoned this creature, she would not know how to make it go away, and like Percy Jackson, I was no fan of karpoi.

 

“It’s a grain spirit,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “I’ve never seen a peach karpos before, but if it’s as vicious as other types…”

I was about to say, we’re doomed, but that seemed both obvious and depressing.

The peach baby turned toward the nosoi. For a moment, I feared he would make some hellish alliance —an axis of evil between illnesses and fruits.

 

The middle corpse, the one with the peach in his forehead, inched backward. “Do not interfere,” he warned the karpos. “We will not allooow—”

The peach baby launched himself at the nosos and bit his head off.

That is not a figure of speech. The karpos’s fanged mouth unhinged, expanding to an unbelievable circumference, then closed around the cadaver’s head, and chomped it off in one bite.

Oh, dear…I hope you weren’t eating dinner as you read that.

In a matter of seconds, the nosos had been torn to shreds and devoured.

Understandably, the other two nosoi retreated, but the karpos crouched and sprang. He landed on the second corpse and proceeded to rip it into plague-flavored Cream of Wheat.

 

The last spirit dissolved into glittering smoke and tried to fly away, but the peach baby spread his leafy wings and launched himself in pursuit. He opened his mouth and inhaled the sickness, snapping and swallowing until every wisp of smoke was gone.

 

He landed in front of Meg and belched. His green eyes gleamed. He did not appear even slightly sick, which I suppose wasn’t surprising, since human diseases don’t infect fruit trees. Instead, even after eating three whole nosoi, the little fellow looked hungry.

He howled and beat his small chest. “Peaches!”

 

Slowly, Percy raised his sword. His nose was still red and runny, and his face was puffy. “Meg, don move,” he snuffled. “I’m gonna—”

“No!” she said. “Don’t hurt him.”

She put her hand tentatively on the creature’s curly head. “You saved us,” she told the karpos. “Thank you.”

 

I started mentally preparing a list of herbal remedies for regenerating severed limbs, but to my surprise, the peach baby did not bite off Meg’s hand. Instead he hugged Meg’s leg and glared at us as if daring us to approach.

“Peaches,” he growled.

“He likes you,” Percy noted. “Um…why?”

“I don’t know,” Meg said. “Honestly, I didn’t summon him!”

I was certain Meg had summoned him, intentionally or unintentionally. I also had some ideas now about her godly parentage, and some questions about this “guardian” that the spirits had mentioned, but I decided it would be better to interrogate her when she did not have a snarling carnivorous toddler wrapped around her leg.

 

“Well, whatever the case,” I said, “we owe the karpos our lives. This brings to mind an expression I coined ages ago: A peach a day keeps the plague spirits away!”

 

Percy sneezed. “I thought it was apples and doctors.” The karpos hissed.

 

“Or peaches,” Percy said. “Peaches work too.” “Peaches,” agreed the karpos.

Percy wiped his nose. “Not criticizing, but why is he grooting?”

 

Meg frowned. “Grooting?”

 

“Yeah, like thah character in the movie…only saying one thing over and over.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t seen that movie,” I said. “But this karpos does seem to have a very…targeted vocabulary.”

 

“Maybe Peaches is his name.” Meg stroked the karpos’s curly brown hair, which elicited a demonic purring from the creature’s throat. “That’s what I’ll call him.”

 

“Whoa, you are not adopting thah—” Percy sneezed with such force, another irrigation pipe exploded behind him, sending up a row of tiny geysers. “Ugh. Sick.”

 

“You’re lucky,” I said. “Your trick with the water diluted the spirit’s power. Instead of getting a deadly illness, you got a head cold.”

 

“I hate head colds.” His green irises looked like they were sinking in a sea of bloodshot. “Neither of you got sick?”

Meg shook her head.

“I have an excellent constitution,” I said. “No doubt that’s what saved me.” “And the fact thah I hosed the smoke off of you,” Percy said.

“Well, yes.”

Percy stared at me as if waiting for something. After an awkward moment, it occurred to me that if he was a god and I was a worshipper, he might expect gratitude.

 

“Ah…thank you,” I said. He nodded. “No problem.”

 

I relaxed a little. If he had demanded a sacrifice, like a white bull or a fatted calf, I’m not sure what I would’ve done.

“Can we go now?” Meg asked.

“An excellent idea,” I said. “Though I’m afraid Percy is in no condition—”

 

“I can drive you the rest of the way,” he said. “If we can get my car out from between those trees…” He glanced in that direction and his expression turned even more miserable. “Aw, Hades no….”

 

A police cruiser was pulling over on the side of the road. I imagined the officers’ eyes tracing the tire ruts in the mud, which led to the plowed-down fence and continued to the blue Toyota Prius wedged between two peach trees. The cruiser’s roof lights flashed on.

 

“Great,” Percy muttered. “If they tow the Prius, I’m dead. My mom and Paul need thah car.” “Go talk to the officers,” I said. “You won’t be any use to us anyway in your current state.” “Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Meg said. “You said the camp is right over those hills?”

 

“Right, but…” Percy scowled, probably trying to think straight through the effects of his cold. “Most people enter camp from the east, where Half-Blood Hill is. The western border is wilder—hills and woods, all heavily enchanted. If you’re not careful, you can get lost….” He sneezed again. “I’m still not even sure Apollo can get in if he’s fully mortal.”

 

“I’ll get in.” I tried to exude confidence. I had no alternative. If I was unable to enter Camp Half-Blood…No. I’d already been attacked twice on my first day as a mortal. There was no plan B that would keep me alive.

The police car’s doors opened.

 

“Go,” I urged Percy. “We’ll find our way through the woods. You explain to the police that you’re sick and you lost control of the car. They’ll go easy on you.”

 

Percy laughed. “Yeah. Cops love me almost as much as teachers do.” He glanced at Meg. “You sure you’re okay with the baby fruit demon?”

Peaches growled.

“All good,” Meg promised. “Go home. Rest. Get lots of fluids.”

 

Percy’s mouth twitched. “You’re telling a son of Poseidon to get lots of fluids? Okay, just try to

 

survive until the weekend, will you? I’ll come to camp and check on you guys if I can. Be careful and

 

CHOOOO!

Muttering unhappily, he touched the cap of his pen to his sword, turning it back into a simple ballpoint. A wise precaution before approaching law enforcement. He trudged down the hill, sneezing and sniffling.

 

“Officer?” he called. “Sorry, I’m up here. Can you tell me where Manhattan is?” Meg turned to me. “Ready?”

 

I was soaking wet and shivering. I was having the worst day in the history of days. I was stuck with a scary girl and an even scarier peach baby. I was by no means ready for anything. But I also desperately wanted to reach camp. I might find some friendly faces there—perhaps even jubilant worshippers who would bring me peeled grapes, Oreos, and other holy offerings.

 

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”

Peaches the karpos grunted. He gestured for us to follow, then scampered toward the hills. Maybe he knew the way. Maybe he just wanted to lead us to a grisly death.

 

Meg skipped after him, swinging from tree branches and cartwheeling through the mud as the mood took her. You might’ve thought we’d just finished a nice picnic rather than a battle with plague-ridden cadavers.

 

I turned my face to the sky. “Are you sure, Zeus? It’s not too late to tell me this was an elaborate prank and recall me to Olympus. I’ve learned my lesson. I promise.”

 

The gray winter clouds did not respond. With a sigh, I jogged after Meg and her homicidal new minion.

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