In the doorway of the Hermes cabin, two girls giggled and whispered as I passed. Normally this sort of attention wouldn’t have fazed me. My magnetism was understandably irresistible. But now my face burned. Me—the manly paragon of romance—reduced to a gawky, inexperienced boy!

I would have screamed at the heavens for this unfairness, but that would’ve been super-embarrassing.

We made our way through the fallow strawberry fields. Up on Half-Blood Hill, the Golden Fleece glinted in the lowest branch of a tall pine tree. Whiffs of steam rose from the head of Peleus, the guardian dragon coiled around the base of the trunk. Next to the tree, the Athena Parthenos looked angry red in the sunset. Or perhaps she just wasn’t happy to see me. (Athena had never gotten over our little tiff during the Trojan War.)

Halfway down the hillside, I spotted the Oracle’s cave, its entrance shrouded by thick burgundy curtains. The torches on either side stood unlit—usually a sign that my prophetess, Rachel Dare, was not in residence. I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.

Even when she was not channeling prophecies, Rachel was a wise young lady. I had hoped to consult her about my problems. On the other hand, since her prophetic power had apparently stopped working (which I suppose in some small part was my fault), I wasn’t sure Rachel would want to see me. She would expect explanations from her Main Man, and while I had invented mansplaining and was its foremost practitioner, I had no answers to give her.

The dream of the flaming bus stayed with me: the groovy crowned woman urging me to find the gates, the ugly mauve-suited man threatening to burn the Oracle.

Well…the cave was right there. I wasn’t sure why the woman in the crown was having such trouble finding it, or why the ugly man would be so intent on burning its “gates,” which amounted to nothing more than purple curtains.

Unless the dream was referring to something other than the Oracle of Delphi….

I rubbed my throbbing temples. I kept reaching for memories that weren’t there, trying to plunge into my vast lake of knowledge only to find it had been reduced to a kiddie pool. You simply can’t do much with a kiddie pool brain.

On the porch of the Big House, a dark-haired young man was waiting for us. He wore faded black trousers, a Ramones T-shirt (bonus points for musical taste), and a black leather bomber jacket. At his side hung a Stygian iron sword.

“I remember you,” I said. “Is it Nicholas, son of Hades?”

“Nico di Angelo.” He studied me, his eyes sharp and colorless, like broken glass. “So it’s true. You’re completely mortal. There’s an aura of death around you—a thick possibility of death.”

Meg snorted. “Sounds like a weather forecast.”

I did not find this amusing. Being face-to-face with a son of Hades, I recalled the many mortals I had sent to the Underworld with my plague arrows. It had always seemed like good clean fun—meting out richly deserved punishments for wicked deeds. Now, I began to understand the terror in my victims’ eyes. I did not want an aura of death hanging over me. I definitely did not want to stand in judgment before Nico di Angelo’s father.

Will put his hand on Nico’s shoulder. “Nico, we need to have another talk about your people skills.”

“Hey, I’m just stating the obvious. If this is Apollo, and he dies, we’re all in trouble.”

Will turned to me. “I apologize for my boyfriend.”

Nico rolled his eyes. “Could you not—”

“Would you prefer special guy?” Will asked. “Or significant other?”

“Significant annoyance, in your case,” Nico grumbled.

“Oh, I’ll get you for that.”

Meg wiped her dripping nose. “You guys fight a lot. I thought we were going to see a centaur.”

“And here I am.” The screen door opened. Chiron trotted out, ducking his head to avoid the doorframe.

From the waist up, he looked every bit the professor he often pretended to be in the mortal world. His brown wool jacket had patches on the elbows. His plaid dress shirt did not quite match his green tie. His beard was neatly trimmed, but his hair would have failed the tidiness inspection required for a proper rat’s nest.

From the waist down, he was a white stallion.

My old friend smiled, though his eyes were stormy and distracted. “Apollo, it’s good you are here. We need to talk about the disappearances.”

Check your spam folder

The prophecies might be there

No? Well, I’m stumped. Bye

MEG GAWKED. “He—he really is a centaur.”