- The Hidden Oracle
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!”
“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!”
“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—”