The Hidden Oracle chapter 9

A walk through the woods

Voices driving me bonkers

I hate spaghetti

 

I SIGHED WITH RELIEF. “This should be easy.”

 

Granted, I’d said the same thing before I fought Poseidon in hand-to-hand combat, and that had not turned out to be easy. Nevertheless, our path into Camp Half-Blood looked straightforward enough. For starters, I was pleased I could see the camp, since it was normally shielded from mortal eyes. This boded well for me getting in.

 

From where we stood at the top of a hill, the entire valley spread out below us: roughly three square miles of woods, meadows, and strawberry fields bordered by Long Island Sound to the north and rolling hills on the other three sides. Just below us, a dense forest of evergreens covered the western third of the vale.

 

Beyond that, the buildings of Camp Half-Blood gleamed in the wintry light: the amphitheater, the sword-fighting stadium, the open-air dining pavilion with its white marble columns. A trireme floated in the canoe lake. Twenty cabins lined the central green where the communal hearth fire glowed cheerfully.

 

At the edge of the strawberry fields stood the Big House: a four-story Victorian painted sky blue with white trim. My friend Chiron would be inside, probably having tea by the fireplace. I would find sanctuary at last.

 

My gaze rose to the far end of the valley. There, on the tallest hill, the Athena Parthenos shone in all its gold-and-alabaster glory. Once, the massive statue had graced the Parthenon in Greece. Now it presided over Camp Half-Blood, protecting the valley from intruders. Even from here I could feel its power, like the subsonic thrum of a mighty engine. Old Gray Eyes was on the lookout for threats, being her usual vigilant, no-fun, all-business self.

 

Personally, I would have installed a more interesting statue—of myself, for instance. Still, the panorama of Camp Half-Blood was an impressive sight. My mood always improved when I saw the place—a small reminder of the good old days when mortals knew how to build temples and do proper burnt sacrifices. Ah, everything was better in ancient Greece! Well, except for a few small improvements modern humans had made—the Internet, chocolate croissants, life expectancy.

Meg’s mouth hung open. “How come I’ve never heard about this place? Do you need tickets?” I chuckled. I always enjoyed the chance to enlighten a clueless mortal. “You see, Meg, magical borders camouflage the valley. From the outside, most humans would spy nothing here except boring farmland. If they approached, they would get turned around and find themselves wandering out again.

 

Believe me, I tried to get a pizza delivered to camp once. It was quite annoying.” “You ordered a pizza?”

 

“Never mind,” I said. “As for tickets…it’s true the camp doesn’t let in just anybody, but you’re in luck. I know the management.”

 

Peaches growled. He sniffed the ground, then chomped a mouthful of dirt and spit it out. “He doesn’t like the taste of this place,” Meg said.

 

“Yes, well…” I frowned at the karpos. “Perhaps we can find him some potting soil or fertilizer when we arrive. I’ll convince the demigods to let him in, but it would be helpful if he doesn’t bite their heads off—at least not right away.”

Peaches muttered something about peaches.

 

“Something doesn’t feel right.” Meg bit her nails. “Those woods…Percy said they were wild and enchanted and stuff.”

 

I, too, felt as if something was amiss, but I chalked this up to my general dislike of forests. For reasons I’d rather not go into, I find them…uncomfortable places. Nevertheless, with our goal in sight, my usual optimism was returning.

 

“Don’t worry,” I assured Meg. “You’re traveling with a god!” “Ex-god.”

 

“I wish you wouldn’t keep harping on that. Anyway, the campers are very friendly. They’ll welcome us with tears of joy. And wait until you see the orientation video!”

“The what?”

“I directed it myself! Now, come along. The woods can’t be that bad.”

 

 

The woods were that bad.

 

As soon as we entered their shadows, the trees seemed to crowd us. Trunks closed ranks, blocking old paths and opening new ones. Roots writhed across the forest floor, making an obstacle course of bumps, knots, and loops. It was like trying to walk across a giant bowl of spaghetti.

 

The thought of spaghetti made me hungry. It had only been a few hours since Sally Jackson’s seven-layer dip and sandwiches, but my mortal stomach was already clenching and squelching for food. The sounds were quite annoying, especially while walking through dark scary woods. Even the karpos Peaches was starting to smell good to me, giving me visions of cobbler and ice cream.

 

As I said earlier, I was generally not a fan of the woods. I tried to convince myself that the trees were not watching me, scowling and whispering among themselves. They were just trees. Even if they had dryad spirits, those dryads couldn’t possibly hold me responsible for what had happened thousands of years ago on a different continent.

Why not? I asked myself. You still hold yourself responsible.

I told myself to stuff a sock in it.

We hiked for hours…much longer than it should have taken to reach the Big House. Normally I could navigate by the sun—which shouldn’t be a surprise, since I spent millennia driving it across the sky—but under the canopy of trees, the light was diffuse, the shadows confusing.

After we passed the same boulder for the third time, I stopped and admitted the obvious. “I have no idea where we are.”

 

Meg plopped herself down onto a fallen log. In the green light, she looked more like a dryad than ever, though tree spirits do not often wear red sneakers and hand-me-down fleece jackets.

“Don’t you have any wilderness skills?” she asked. “Reading moss on the sides of trees? Following tracks?”

“That’s more my sister’s thing,” I said.

 

“Maybe Peaches can help.” Meg turned to her karpos. “Hey, can you find us a way out of the woods?” For the past few miles, the karpos had been muttering nervously, cutting his eyes from side to side.

Now he sniffed the air, his nostrils quivering. He tilted his head.

 

His face flushed bright green. He emitted a distressed bark, then dissolved in a swirl of leaves. Meg shot to her feet. “Where’d he go?”

 

I scanned the woods. I suspected Peaches had done the intelligent thing. He’d sensed danger approaching and abandoned us. I didn’t want to suggest that to Meg, though. She’d already become quite fond of the karpos. (Ridiculous, getting attached to a small dangerous creature. Then again, we gods got attached to humans, so I had no room to criticize.)

“Perhaps he went scouting,” I suggested. “Perhaps we should—”

APOLLO.

The voice reverberated in my head, as if someone had installed Bose speakers behind my eyes. It was not the voice of my conscience. My conscience was not female, and it was not that loud. Yet something about the woman’s tone was eerily familiar.

“What’s wrong?” Meg asked.

 

The air turned sickly sweet. The trees loomed over me like trigger hairs of a Venus flytrap. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of my face.

 

“We can’t stay here,” I said. “Attend me, mortal.” “Excuse me?” Meg said.

“Uh, I mean come on!”

We ran, stumbling over tree roots, fleeing blindly through a maze of branches and boulders. We reached a clear stream over a bed of gravel. I barely slowed down. I waded in, sinking shin-deep into the ice-cold water.

The voice spoke again: FIND ME.

 

This time it was so loud, it stabbed through my forehead like a railroad spike. I stumbled, falling to my knees.

 

“Hey!” Meg gripped my arm. “Get up!” “You didn’t hear that?”

“Hear what?”

THE FALL OF THE SUN, the voice boomed. THE FINAL VERSE.

I collapsed face-first into the stream.

 

“Apollo!” Meg rolled me over, her voice tight with alarm. “Come on! I can’t carry you!” Yet she tried. She dragged me across the river, scolding me and cursing until, with her help, I

managed to crawl to shore.

 

I lay on my back, staring wildly at the forest canopy. My soaked clothes were so cold they burned. My body trembled like an open E string on an electric bass.

 

Meg tugged off my wet winter coat. Her own coat was much too small for me, but she draped the warm dry fleece over my shoulders. “Keep yourself together,” she ordered. “Don’t go crazy on me.”

My own laughter sounded brittle. “But I—I heard—”

THE FIRES WILL CONSUME ME. MAKE HASTE!

 

The voice splintered into a chorus of angry whispers. Shadows grew longer and darker. Steam rose from my clothes, smelling like the volcanic fumes of Delphi.

 

Part of me wanted to curl into a ball and die. Part of me wanted to get up and run wildly after the voices—to find their source—but I suspected that if I tried, my sanity would be lost forever.

 

Meg was saying something. She shook my shoulders. She put her face nose-to-nose with mine so my own derelict reflection stared back at me from the lenses of her cat-eye glasses. She slapped me, hard, and I managed to decipher her words: “GET UP!”

 

Somehow I did. Then I doubled over and retched.

 

I hadn’t vomited in centuries. I’d forgotten how unpleasant it was.

The next thing I knew, we were staggering along, Meg bearing most of my weight. The voices whispered and argued, tearing off little pieces of my mind and carrying them away into the forest. Soon I wouldn’t have much left.

 

There was no point. I might as well wander off into the forest and go insane. The idea struck me as funny. I began to giggle.

 

Meg forced me to keep walking. I couldn’t understand her words, but her tone was insistent and stubborn, with just enough anger to outweigh her own terror.

 

In my fractured mental state, I thought the trees were parting for us, grudgingly opening a path straight out of the woods. I saw a bonfire in the distance, and the open meadows of Camp Half-Blood.

 

It occurred to me that Meg was talking to the trees, telling them to get out of the way. The idea was ridiculous, and at the moment it seemed hilarious. Judging from the steam billowing from my clothes, I guessed I was running a fever of about a hundred and six.

 

I was laughing hysterically as we stumbled out of the forest, straight toward the campfire where a dozen teenagers sat making s’mores. When they saw us, they rose. In their jeans and winter coats, with assorted weapons at their sides, they were the dourest bunch of marshmallow roasters I had ever seen.

I grinned. “Oh, hi! I’m Apollo!”

My eyes rolled up in my head, and I passed out.

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