“Yes,” I snapped. “Now, the way I gained possession of the Oracle of Delphi in the first place was by killing this monster called Python who lived in the depths of the cavern.”

“A python like the snake,” Meg said.

“Yes and no. The snake species is named after Python the monster, who is also rather snaky, but who is much bigger and scarier and devours small girls who talk too much. At any rate, last August, while I was…indisposed, my ancient foe Python was released from Tartarus. He reclaimed the cave of Delphi. That’s why the Oracle stopped working.”

“But if the Oracle is in America now, why does it matter if some snake monster takes over its old cave?”

That was about the longest sentence I had yet heard her speak. She’d probably done it just to spite me.

“It’s too much to explain,” I said. “You’ll just have to—”

“Meg.” Chiron gave her one of his heroically tolerant smiles. “The original site of the Oracle is like the deepest taproot of a tree. The branches and leaves of prophecy may extend across the world, and Rachel Dare may be our loftiest branch, but if the taproot is strangled, the whole tree is endangered. With Python back in residence at his old lair, the spirit of the Oracle has been completely blocked.”

“Oh.” Meg made a face at me. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

Before I could strangle her like the annoying taproot she was, Chiron refilled my teacup.

“The larger problem,” he said, “is that we have no other source of prophecies.”

“Who cares?” Meg asked. “So you don’t know the future. Nobody knows the future.”

“Who cares?!” I shouted. “Meg McCaffrey, prophecies are the catalysts for every important event—every quest or battle, disaster or miracle, birth or death. Prophecies don’t simply foretell the future. They shape it! They allow the future to happen.”

“I don’t get it.”

Chiron cleared his throat. “Imagine prophecies are flower seeds. With the right seeds, you can grow any garden you desire. Without seeds, no growth is possible.”

“Oh.” Meg nodded. “That would suck.”

I found it strange that Meg, a street urchin and Dumpster warrior, would relate so well to garden metaphors, but Chiron was an excellent teacher. He had picked up on something about the girl…an impression that had been lurking in the back of my mind as well. I hoped I was wrong about what it meant, but with my luck, I would be right. I usually was.

“So where is Rachel Dare?” I asked. “Perhaps if I spoke with her…?”

Chiron set down his tea. “Rachel planned to visit us during her winter vacation, but she never did. It might not mean anything….”

I leaned forward. It was not unheard of for Rachel Dare to be late. She was artistic, unpredictable, impulsive, and rule-averse—all qualities I dearly admired. But it wasn’t like her not to show up at all.

“Or?” I asked.

“Or it might be part of the larger problem,” Chiron said. “Prophecies are not the only things that have failed. Travel and communication have become difficult in the last few months. We haven’t heard from our friends at Camp Jupiter in weeks. No new demigods have arrived. Satyrs aren’t reporting from the field. Iris messages no longer work.”

“Iris what?” Meg asked.

“Two-way visions,” I said. “A form of communication overseen by the rainbow goddess. Iris has always been flighty….”

“Except that normal human communications are also on the fritz,” Chiron said. “Of course, phones have always been dangerous for demigods—”

“Yeah, they attract monsters,” Meg agreed. “I haven’t used a phone in forever.”

“A wise move,” Chiron said. “But recently our phones have stopped working altogether. Mobile, landline, Internet…it doesn’t seem to matter. Even the archaic form of communication known as e-mail is strangely unreliable. The messages simply don’t arrive.”

“Did you look in the junk folder?” I offered.

“I fear the problem is more complicated,” Chiron said. “We have no communication with the outside world. We are alone and understaffed. You are the first newcomers in almost two months.”

I frowned. “Percy Jackson mentioned nothing of this.”

“I doubt Percy is even aware,” Chiron said. “He’s been busy with school. Winter is normally our quietest time. For a while, I was able to convince myself that the communication failures were nothing but an inconvenient happenstance. Then the disappearances started.”