- The Hidden Oracle
I made an un-godlike squeak. If there had been anything left in my stomach, I would have lost it. “How long does she have?”
“Twenty-four hours, give or take. Then she’ll start to…um, soften.”
It was difficult to imagine Meg McCaffrey softening under any circumstances, but I pictured her alone and scared, encased in insect goop, tucked in some larder of carcasses in the ants’ nest. For a girl who hated bugs—Oh, Demeter had been right to hate me and keep her children away from me. I was a terrible god!
“Go get some help,” Pete urged. “The Apollo cabin can heal that head wound. You’re not doing your friend any favors by charging after her and getting yourself killed.”
“Why do you care what happens to us?”
The geyser god looked offended. “Visitor satisfaction is always our top priority! Besides, if you find Paulie while you’re in there…”
I tried to stay angry at the palikos, but the loneliness and worry on his face mirrored my own feelings. “Did Paulie explain how to navigate the ants’ nest?”
Pete shook his head. “Like I said, he didn’t want me to follow him. The myrmekes are dangerous enough. And if those other guys are still wandering around—”
Pete frowned. “Didn’t I mention that? Yeah. Paulie saw three humans, heavily armed. They were looking for the grove too.”
My left leg started thumping nervously, as if it missed its three-legged race partner. “How did Paulie know what they were looking for?”
“He heard them talking in Latin.”
“Latin? Were they campers?”
Pete spread his hands. “I—I don’t think so. Paulie described them like they were adults. He said one of them was the leader. The other two addressed him as imperator.”
The entire planet seemed to tilt. “Imperator.”
“Yeah, you know, like in Rome—”
“Yes, I know.” Suddenly, too many things made sense. Pieces of the puzzle flew together, forming one huge picture that smacked me in the face. The Beast…Triumvirate Holdings…adult demigods completely off the radar.
It was all I could do to avoid pitching forward into the geyser. Meg needed me more than ever. But I would have to do this right. I would have to be careful—even more careful than when I gave the fiery horses of the sun their yearly vaccinations.
“Pete,” I said, “do you still oversee sacred oaths?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Then hear my solemn oath!”
“Uh, the thing is, you’ve got this aura around you like you just broke a sacred oath, maybe one you swore on the River Styx? And if you break another oath with me—”
“I swear that I will save Meg McCaffrey. I will use every means at my disposal to bring her safely from the ants’ lair, and this oath supersedes any previous oath I have made. This I swear upon your sacred and extremely hot waters!”
Pete winced. “Well, okay. It’s done now. But keep in mind that if you don’t keep that oath, if Meg dies, even if it’s not your fault…you’ll face the consequences.”
“I am already cursed for breaking my earlier oath! What does it matter?”
“Yeah, but see, those River Styx oaths can take years to destroy you. They’re like cancer. My oaths…” Pete shrugged. “If you break it, there’s nothing I can do to stop your punishment. Wherever you are, a geyser will instantly blast through the ground at your feet and boil you alive.”
“Ah…” I tried to stop my knees from knocking. “Yes, of course I knew that. I stand by my oath.”
“You’ve got no choice now.”
“Right. I think I’ll—I’ll go get healed.”
I staggered off.
“Camp is the other direction,” Pete said.
I changed course.
“Remember to complete our survey online!” Pete called after me. “Just curious, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your overall satisfaction with the Woods at Camp Half-Blood?”
I didn’t reply. As I stumbled into the darkness, I was too busy contemplating, on a scale of one to ten, the pain I might have to endure in the near future.
I didn’t have the strength to make it back to camp. The farther I walked, the clearer that became. My joints were pudding. I felt like a marionette, and as much as I’d enjoyed controlling mortals from above in the past, I did not relish being on the other end of the strings.
My defenses were at level zero. The smallest hellhound or dragon could have easily made a meal of the great Apollo. If an irritated badger had taken issue with me, I would have been doomed.