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The Traveler and the Gods of Olympus, Book 1: The Titan's Curse

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Percy, Thalia, and Annabeth were trapped. A manticore on one side, an armed helicopter on the other. Percy knew they had almost no chance of escaping alive.

That was when he heard it: A clear, piercing call. The call of a hunter's horn.

The manticore froze at the sound, and for a moment, no one moved. There was only the swirl of snow and wind and the chopping sounds of the helicopter blades. In the background, Percy heard a strange noise, almost like a car engine that refused to start, but ignored it.

"No," Dr. Thorn gasped. "It cannot be-"

His sentence was cut short when something shot past Percy like a streak of moonlight. A glowing silver arrow sprouted from Dr. Thorn's shoulder.

He staggered backward, wailing in agony.

"Curse you!" Thorn cried. He unleashed his spikes, dozens of them at once, into the woods where the arrow had come from, but just as fast, silvery arrows shot back in reply. It almost looked as if the arrows had intercepted the thorns in midair and sliced them in two, but Percy reasoned that his eyes must've been playing tricks on him. No one, not even Apollo's children, could shoot with that much accuracy.

The manticore pulled the arrow out of his shoulder with a howl of pain, breathing heavily. Percy swiped with his sword, but apparently the monster was not as injured as he looked, for he dodged the attack and swatted him aside almost effortlessly, slamming his scorpion tail into Percy's shield.

Then the archers emerged from the shadows of the wood. About a dozen or so, at least. Percy's eyes widened when he noticed that they were all young girls. The youngest looked to be around ten, while the oldest was probably his age. They were all dressed in the same outfit- silvery parkas and dark jeans. All of them carried bows, and were advancing on the manticore with hard, determined expressions.

"The Hunters!" Annabeth breathed in awe, while Thalia, who was standing next to Percy, muttered, "Oh, wonderful." Percy wanted to ask what they meant, but didn't get the chance to.

One of the older girls stepped forward, and he got a good look at her as she drew her bow. She was tall and graceful with coppery colored skin. Unlike the other girls, she had a silver circlet braided into the top of her long dark hair, reminding Percy of a sort of princess. "Permission to kill, my lady?"

He had no idea who she was speaking to, for she kept both her eyes and bow trained on the manticore.

The monster wailed. "This is not fair! Direct interference! It is against the Ancient Laws."

"Not so," another girl said. This one was a bit younger than Percy, around twelve or thirteen. She had auburn hair gathered back in a ponytail and strange eyes- silvery yellow like the moon. Her face was so beautiful it made him catch his breath, but her expression was stern and dangerous. "The hunting of all wild beasts is within my sphere. And you, foul creature, are a wild beast." She looked at the older girl with the circlet. "Zoe, permission granted."

The manticore growled. "If I cannot have these alive, I shall have them dead!"

He lunged at Percy and Thalia, knowing they were dazed, weakened. But before it could reach them, Annabeth cried out, "No!" and charged.

"Get back, half-blood!" the girl with the circlet ordered. "Get out of the line of fire!"

But Annabeth ignored her and kept moving. She leaped onto the monster's back and drove her knife into his mane. The manticore howled, turning in circles with his tail flailing as Annabeth hung on for dear life.

"Fire!" Zoe yelled, and Percy screamed.


But the Hunters let their arrows fly. The first caught the manticore in the neck. Another hit his chest. The manticore staggered backward, wailing, "This is not the end, Huntress! You shall pay!"

And before anyone could react, the monster, with Annabeth still on his back, leaped over the cliff and tumbled into the darkness.


The Doctor was somewhat puzzled as to why the TARDIS had landed him in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Even so, he stepped outside, freezing when he heard the snarling voice a moment later.

"Now do you see how hopeless it is? Yield, little heroes."

Someone was in trouble. And he knew that sort of talk. Most likely it was a monster. Going after a demigod.

Without thinking, he ran towards where the voice had emanated. Silence fell as he heard the piercing call of a hunter's horn. Of course, he thought to himself. The Hunt.

By the time he reached the scene of the battle, the monster- a manticore- had let out an agonized wail from an arrow in his shoulder. Hunters' arrows were flying, splitting the animal's spikes that it shot before it ever reached them.

One of the demigods, a young boy with wild black hair, lunged at the manticore with a bronze sword. However, the creature dodged his attack and swatted him away with its tail.

He stood still, frozen, as the Hunters emerged. Near the front, he recognized the Lieutenant, Zoe Nightshade, by the silver circlet on her head. She drew her bow and, without looking away from the manticore, asked, "Permission to kill, my lady?"

The monster wailed in protest. "This is not fair! Direct interference! It is against the Ancient Laws."

"Not so," came a different voice in reply. Her voice. "The hunting of all wild beasts is within my sphere. And you, foul creature, are a wild beast." She turned to her lieutenant. "Zoe, permission granted."

"If I cannot have these alive, I shall have them dead!" The manticore lunged at the boy and the girl next to him, both of whom looked weary and dazed.

Then a different, but shockingly familiar voice, rang out. "No!"

The Doctor was stunned for a brief moment. Her? Fighting a manticore, here and now? But as he caught sight of her mane of blonde hair, he realized it had been quite some time since he'd seen her.

Zoe tried to stop her. "Get back, half-blood! Get out of the line of fire!"

But the girl ignored her, leaping onto the monster's back and stabbing its mane with her knife. A bronze knife, that he was trying to convince himself he hadn't seen before.

"Fire!" Zoe yelled. In turn, the young boy let out an agonized cry.

Before long, the monster was tumbling over the edge, taking her with it. And when the young demigod screamed the girl's name, he knew, with a painful jolt, that he had been right.

The girl that had just been lost...was Annabeth Chase.

Percy started to run after her, but froze when he realized that their enemies were not yet done with them. Loud snaps sounded from the helicopter- gunfire.

Most of the Hunters scattered as tiny holes appeared in the snow at their feet, but the girl with auburn hair simply looked up calmly at the helicopter.

"Mortals," she announced, "are not allowed to witness my hunt." Then she stretched out her hand, and the helicopter exploded into dust.

No, Percy realized. Not dust. The black metal dissolved into a flock of birds- ravens. They scattered into the night, and then the Hunters advanced on them.

The one called Zoe stopped short when she saw Thalia. "You," she spat with distaste.

"Zoe Nightshade," Thalia replied, her voice trembling with anger. "Perfect timing, as usual."

Zoe ignored her comment, scanning the rest of them. "Four half-bloods and a satyr, my lady."

"Yes," the younger girl said. "Some of Chiron's campers, I see."

"Annabeth!" Percy yelled. "You have to let us save her!"

The auburn-haired girl turned toward him. "I'm sorry, Percy Jackson, but your friend is beyond help."

He tried to struggle to his feet, but a couple of the girls held him down. "You are in no condition to be hurling yourself off cliffs," the auburn-haired girl murmured, almost somewhat patronizingly.

"Let me go!" Percy demanded. "Who do you think you are?"

Zoe stepped forward, her hand raised as if she intended to strike him. But she was stopped by the other girl.

"No," she ordered, placing a hand on the girl's arm. "I sense no disrespect, Zoe. He is simply distraught. He does not understand."

The girl focused on him, and for the first time, Percy was able to look into her eyes properly. They were colder and brighter than the way the moon was now, in winter.

She murmured, in an even, clear voice, "I am Artemis. Goddess of the Hunt."

Finally, finally, the Doctor was shaken from his awed, terrified stupor and stepped forward into view. He saw the boy look up at Artemis and stammer, "Um...okay." The satyr, in turn, bowed and started yammering incoherently, bringing a slight smile of amusement to the Doctor's face. Satyrs were all captivated by Artemis. The other girl was annoyed by this, however, snapping, "Get up, goat boy!"

And then one of the Hunters caught sight of him. "Intruder!" she yelled, drawing her bow. The Doctor raised his hands in surrender.

He saw Artemis- and several other Hunters- jerk their heads upwards. For a moment, his eyes met those of the goddess. "Lower your bow, Joanna," she ordered calmly. The girl did so, a confused look on her face, as Artemis murmured, "He is no intruder, sister."

"But he is a man!" the girl called Joanna protested. "Men are not permitted-"

Artemis sighed. "He is an old ally, Joanna; although he has nerve showing his face here," she said dryly, raising an eyebrow at him. The Doctor smirked at that. "Come forward," she ordered.

Percy watched, dumbstruck, as the man bounded forward. Judging by his long limbs and uneven gait, he was probably very clumsy. He was dressed in a suit with a tweed jacket and a red bow tie, reminding Percy of a college professor- a very young one, anyway. His dark hair fell over his eyes, which were a very similar color to his own sea-green ones. When he reached Artemis, he knelt down and bowed his head briefly. Then he looked back up and grinned.

"It's a pleasure to see you again, my lady." Artemis glared coldly, and Percy's mouth fell open. So did Grover's. Then Bianca spoke up. "Whoa," she said. "Hold up. Time out." She pointed a finger to Percy, Grover, Thalia, Artemis, and the strange man in turn, as if she was trying to connect dots. "Who...who are you people?"

Artemis turned to look at Bianca, and her expression softened."It might be a better question, my dear girl, to ask who are you!Who are your parents?"

She glanced nervously at Nico, who was still staring in awe at Artemis.

Our parents are dead," Bianca murmured. "We're orphans. There's a bank trust that pays for our school, but…"

She faltered. Percy supposed that she could see the disbelief on the Hunters' faces, for she snapped, "What? I'm telling the truth!"

"You are a half-blood," Zoe Nightshade murmured. "One of thy parents was mortal. The other was an Olympian."

"An Olympian...athlete?" Bianca said, her head tilted in confusion.

"No," Zoe said firmly. "One of the gods."

"Cool!" the boy exclaimed, and the strange man glanced over and smiled at him.

"No!" Bianca snapped, her voice quavering. "This is not cool!"

Then Nico focused on the newcomer. "Are you a god?"

He smiled and shook his head. "No, no. I'm not a god. Just a traveler."

Nico tilted his head, confused. "Well, then how come you can talk to her? She's a goddess, right?"

"Nico, shut up," Bianca snapped. "This is not like in your stupid Mythomagic game! There are no gods!"

Thalia murmured, "Bianca, I know it's hard to believe. But the gods are still around. Trust me. They're immortal. And whenever they have kids with regular humans, kids like us, well… Our lives are dangerous."

"Dangerous," Bianca repeated. "Like the girl who fell."

Thalia turned away, and Percy didn't miss the pained look on Artemis' face. "Do not despair for Annabeth," the goddess said, glancing at Bianca. "She was a brave maiden. If she can be found, I shall find her."

Then Artemis fixed her intense eyes on the other man. "Doctor," she said plainly. "I hope there is a good reason that you are in the presence of my Hunters without my permission."

The man she called "Doctor" grinned again. "I simply wandered off, my lady. Permission to speak freely?"

Artemis huffed and rolled her eyes. Then, much to Percy's surprise, she said- albeit somewhat begrudgingly, "Permission granted."

"Right then!" the Doctor said, springing to his feet. Then his voice lowered, became solemn. "Do you know where Annabeth Chase went?"

Percy wanted to start yelling and asking him questions. How did he know Annabeth's last name? If she knew him personally, how come she'd never mentioned anyone like him before?

"She is gone. Can't you sense it, Doctor? Some magic is at work. I do not know exactly how or why, but your old friend has vanished."

The Doctor sighed. "I'm not like you, Lady Artemis. I'm no god. But I know that you're right- something strange is going on." Then he paused, turned to smile faintly at Thalia. "Do you remember me, Thalia?"

Thalia rolled her eyes. "Of course I remember you, pretty boy," she spat. "But there are more important things right now. Annabeth's gone!"

The Doctor nodded, his voice grave when he spoke. "Yes. She is. But whatever happens, I'm sure she'll be fine. She's a smart girl."

Something about that comment filled Percy with blind anger. He knew nothing about what he and Annabeth had been through the last few years. What sort of dangers there were. "How can you be so sure?" he snapped, jumping to his feet.

"You don't know anything!" he yelled, and before he could stop himself, he had drawn out Riptide. His vision was tinted red, but even so he could see that, oddly enough, the Hunters hadn't drawn their bows. Perhaps they didn't care.

Fueled by senseless anger, he flung his sword at the Doctor. Had his aim been better, it would've been a fatal wound, Percy knew. As it was, the sword would probably catch him in the leg or foot.

Then, something happened that brought Percy out of his enraged state and back to reality- standing on a snow-covered cliff with his friends, two terrified half-bloods, and the Goddess of the Hunt.

The blade passed harmlessly through the Doctor's leg. There was no reaction from him, other than raising his eyebrows. He pursed his lips and turned around, while Percy nearly collapsed.

I would've killed him, Percy realized. I was ready to kill him...all because of a comment about Annabeth.

And then he remembered- there was only one thing celestial bronze weapons didn't work on.

As the Doctor picked up the sword, Percy blurted out, "You're mortal!"

The Doctor grabbed the sword hilt and turned around, smirking. "Well, yeah. Why do you think the Hunters didn't try to defend me? They knew it wouldn't hurt me." He held up the sword, studying it in the light, and read the inscription on the hilt.

"Anaklusmos," he murmured. "Riptide. Impressive sword you have here, you know."

"You can read Ancient Greek?" Percy asked, stunned. The Doctor nodded, a smug expression on his face. "I know hundreds of languages. Ancient Greek just happens to be one of them." Then he paused. "What's your name, anyway?"

"Percy," he replied. "Percy Jackson." Then he sighed. "Sorry I threw Riptide at you."

He smiled easily and waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "Ah, don't worry about it. I've had worse things happen to me than a bronze sword flying through my ankle. All's forgiven. Nice to meet you, Percy."

Shame burned in his chest-not only had he tried to kill the Doctor, he'd tried to kill someone that seemed like a decent person. Before he could say anything else, Nico's hand shot up in the air and he turned towards Artemis.

"Ooh! What about Dr. Thorn? That was awesome how you all shot him with arrows! Is he dead?"

"He was a manticore," Artemis replied solemnly. "Hopefully he is destroyed for now, but monsters never truly die. They re-form over and over again, and they must be hunted whenever they reappear."

"Or they'll hunt us," Thalia added.

Bianca di Angelo shivered. "That explains… Nico, you remember last summer, those guys who tried to attack us in the alley in DC?"

"And that bus driver," Nico said, nodding. "The one with the ram's horns. I told you that was real."

Percy nodded in agreement with him. "That's why Grover has been watching you. To keep you safe, if you turned out to be half-bloods."

"Grover?" Bianca stared at him. "You're a demigod?"

Grover looked a little embarrassed. "A satyr, actually." He kicked off his shoes, displaying his goat hooves. Bianca looked as if she might faint.

"Grover, put your shoes back on," Thalia snapped. "You're freaking her out!"

"Hey, my hooves are clean!"

Meanwhile, the Doctor kept turning Riptide over in his fingers, analyzing the bronze. Percy put him out of his mind for the moment and focused on Bianca, while a small part of him was wondering if and when the Doctor would give him his sword back.

"Bianca," he said softly, "we came here to help you. You and Nico need training to survive. Dr. Thorn won't be the last monster you meet. You need to come to camp."

"Camp?" she asked.

"Camp Half-Blood," he replied. "It's where half-bloods learn to survive and stuff. You can join us, stay there year-round if you like."

"Sweet, let's go!" Nico exclaimed.

"Wait," Bianca said insistently, shaking her head. "I don't-"

"There is another option," Zoe put in calmly, and Thalia snapped, "No, there isn't!"

Thalia and Zoe glared at each other. Percy had no idea what they were talking about, but could tell that there was obviously bad history between them. For some reason, they seemed to hate each other.

"We've burdened these children enough," Artemis announced, giving both Zoe and Thalia a meaningful look. "Zoe, we will rest here for a few hours. Raise the tents. Treat the wounded. Retrieve our guests' belongings from the school."

"Yes, my lady," she replied, bowing.

Artemis then turned her attention to Bianca. "And, Bianca, come with me. I would like to speak with you."

Nico gave her an inquiring look. "What about me?"

Her expression softened, and she gave him an almost motherly smile. "Perhaps you can show Grover how to play that card game you enjoy. I'm sure Grover would be happy to entertain you for a while… as a favor to me?" she asked, giving Grover an expectant look.

He nearly tripped as he jumped to his feet. "You bet! Come on, Nico!"

Nico and Grover walked off toward the woods, talking about hit points and armor ratings and other geeky stuff Percy paid no mind to. Artemis led a confused-looking Bianca along the cliff while the Hunters began unpacking their knapsacks and making camp.

Zoe gave Thalia one more harsh leer, then left to oversee things.

As soon as she was gone, Thalia stamped her foot in frustration. "The nerve of those Hunters! They think they're so… Argh!"

"I'm with you," Percy agreed. "I don't trust-"

"Oh, you're with me?" Thalia snapped, turning on him furiously. "What were you thinking back there in the gym, Percy? You'd take on Dr. Thorn all by yourself? You knew he was a monster! If we'd stuck together, we could've taken him without the Hunters getting involved. Annabeth might still be here. Did you think of that?"

Percy's jaw clenched. Many harsh words crossed his mind, and he would have said them, too, but then he looked down and saw something navy blue lying in the snow at his feet. Annabeth's New York Yankees baseball cap.

Thalia didn't say another word. She wiped a tear from her cheek, turned, and marched off, leaving him alone with a trampled cap in the snow.

Chapter Text

However, Percy wasn't alone for long. A few moments after Thalia stormed off, the Doctor came over and stood next to him. He held out Riptide so that Percy could grab the hilt. "Here," he murmured. When Percy took the sword from him, the Doctor sighed. "I'm sorry about Annabeth."

Percy recapped the sword, then bent down and picked up her baseball cap. He held it in his hands, keeping his eyes focused on it as he replied softly, "I don't wanna talk about it." Then he sighed. "I should've gone after her. I could've saved her!"

The Doctor nodded slowly. "I know how you feel, Percy Jackson. It's hard when someone close to you is lost. Even more so when you watch it happen." Percy noticed a strange look in his eye. He seemed very...sad, all of a sudden. But Percy knew better than to ask.

There was a brief silence between them, and then Percy glanced at him and spoke up. "What were you doing with my sword?"

The Doctor smiled slightly. "Studying it. I'm very intrigued by the properties of celestial bronze. What causes it to decide what to kill and what to ignore? My theory is that there's some sort of chemical composition that can recognize the biology of mortals versus monsters and-"

"Whoa. Maybe...slow down?" Percy said, chuckling. "You lost me at 'chemical'. If you wanna talk to someone about really smart stuff, then maybe you should talk to..."

He faltered. He'd been close to saying "Annabeth".

The Doctor didn't miss the shift in his mood. "Wish I'd gotten here sooner," he murmured, looking at the ground. "Then maybe I could've done something." Then he looked back up and gave Percy a faint smile. "She means a lot to you, I'm guessing."

Percy was sure his face turned red, but he nodded anyway. "Yeah. She, uh...she saved my life. More than once. I really owe her. And she's pretty much my best friend, so..." He shrugged halfheartedly. "Well, her and Grover. Thalia too."

The Doctor chuckled to himself, then let out a heavy sigh. "That's nice. My best friends...they're a bit busy right now. They just had to go and marry each other and leave me behind while they went on their honeymoon," he joked. "I think they would like you," he added, almost as an afterthought.

Silence fell once more as Percy sighed and tried to think of what to say. Emotions, questions...his thoughts were flooded with them. Finally, though, he settled on asking, "What's your name? Artemis called you 'Doctor', but I figured you have to have a last name, right?"

He sighed and shook his head. "No, Percy, I do not have a proper name. Well, technically, I do, but I'd rather not tell anyone what it is. It's complicated." He paused, but before Percy could reply, he continued, "While we're on the subject of names, I have to ask- is your full name Perseus?"

Percy nodded. "Yeah. My mom, she...named me after the hero. Because, you know, in the myths, most of the Greek heroes had pretty rotten luck. They died young or got cursed. But Perseus didn't. I guess my mom thought that luck would transfer. But the way things have been going, I don't think so," he said, laughing.

The Doctor grinned at him, shook his head, and laid a hand on his uninjured shoulder. "Ah, I dunno about that. I reckon you're a fighter. And fighters always have a good chance. I wish you luck, Percy."

With that, he turned around and started to walk away. "I have to catch up with Thalia," he said over his shoulder. "I haven't seen her for years!"
As he walked away, Percy couldn't help but be struck with deja vu. The way the Doctor had wished him good luck and then set his hand on his shoulder, as well as the smile on his face...

It reminded him of his father.

The Hunters set up their camping site in a matter of minutes. Seven large tents, all of silver silk, curved in a crescent around one side of a bonfire. One of the girls blew a silver dog whistle, and a dozen white wolves appeared out of the woods. They began circling the camp like guard dogs. The Hunters walked among them and fed them treats, completely unafraid, but Percy decided he would stick close to the tents. Falcons watched from the trees, their eyes flashing in the firelight- more guards, probably. Even the weather seemed to bend to the goddess' will. The air was still cold, but the wind died down and the snow stopped falling, so it was almost pleasant for him, sitting by the fire.

Almost...except for the searing pain in his shoulder and the guilt weighing him down. He couldn't quite believe that Annabeth was gone. And as angry as he was at Thalia, he had a terrible sinking feeling that she was right. It was his fault.

What had Annabeth wanted to tell me in the gym? He wondered. Something serious, she'd said. Now, there was a chance he'd never find out. His mind went back to that place, and the fact that they'd danced together for half a song, and his heart grew heavier.

He watched Thalia pacing in the snow at the edge of camp, walking among the wolves without fear. The Doctor was at her side, gesturing with his hands and talking. Neither of them were smiling, so whatever they were discussing must have been serious. After a minute, the Doctor said something to Thalia that seemed to be comforting, and she leaned into his side, and he placed his arm across her shoulders. Percy wondered what they were talking about.

He was curious as to how he knew Thalia and Annabeth. Perhaps he'd met them both separately. Helped them with something. Or maybe he'd first come across them when they were runaways with Luke. Did Luke know him too? Either way, Thalia seemed to be close to him.

Percy was almost hurt by this- neither of them had ever mentioned a man like the Doctor. Not even vaguely- that he could think of. And he was pretty sure he'd remember Annabeth or Thalia telling him about a smart British man dressed like a professor.

Percy couldn't be too jealous or hurt, though- he'd kept a secret from them, too.

It had all started when he was around ten. He'd gotten into a nasty argument with his stepfather and ran out of his apartment. For whatever reason, he sat down on a curb and started crying, as quietly as he could. However, someone still noticed him.

A very pretty blonde woman came and sat down next to him. She told him that her name was Rose, and asked him what was wrong. Despite every warning he'd been given about not talking to strangers, he told her all about the fight he'd gotten into. Rose, in turn, smiled and gave him some good advice. She left not too long after that. The really weird thing was, though...she'd called him Perseus, not Percy.

Rose kept coming back, too. Most often, she'd appear- seemingly out of thin air- when he really needed someone to talk to. They'd converse on sidewalk curbs, in alleys, even on the fire escape in his old apartment building. Sometimes she brought him gifts- a book he'd been wanting to read, a new basketball. She even brought him a necklace once, and he still wore it even now- a simple metal chain with a silver trident on it.

That had been the last time they spoke- right before he first went to Camp Half-Blood.

Which raised a question he hadn't considered in a while- had she known? Did she always know that he was a son of the sea god- or at least a half-blood? Was she a half-blood herself? And why hadn't he seen her in so long?

Percy was broken out of his thoughts when one of the Hunters brought him his backpack. A few moments later, Grover and Nico returned from their walk, and Grover helped him fix up his wounded arm.

"It's green!" Nico said with delight.

"Hold still," Grover instructed. "Here, eat some ambrosia while I clean that out."

While Grover dressed his wound, Percy winced, but the ambrosia square helped. Between that and the salve Grover used, his arm felt much better within a few minutes.

Nico rummaged through his own bag, and before long was asking Percy questions. He wanted to know about Riptide, being a son of Poseidon, and Annabeth. He asked if Percy fought with Thalia a lot, since she was a daughter of Zeus. (He stayed silent.) Then he asked why Annabeth didn't know better than to fall off a cliff- Percy had to fight the urge to strangle him at that. When Nico asked if Annabeth was his girlfriend, he nearly lost it- but was saved by the approaching Zoe Nightshade.

"Percy Jackson," she said formally, and for th first time, he got a good look at her face. She had dark brown eyes, a slightly upturned nose, and pursed lips. Between her formal behavior and the silver circlet on her head, she reminded him so much of royalty that he had to stop himself from sitting up straight and replying, "Yes, ma'am." She studied him distastefully, as if he was a filthy object she had been tasked with fetching.

"Come with me," she ordered. "Lady Artemis wishes to speak with thee."

Zoe led him to the last tent, which looked no different from the others, and waved him inside. Bianca di Angelo was seated next to the auburn-haired girl that he still had trouble thinking of as Artemis. On her right, a bit farther away, sat the Doctor- he must have finished talking to Thalia.

The inside of the tent was warm and comfortable. Silk rugs and pillows covered the floor. In the center, a golden brazier of fire seemed to burn without fuel or smoke. Behind the goddess, on a polished oak display stand, was her huge silver bow, carved to resemble gazelle horns. The walls were hung with animal pelts: black bear, tiger, and several others he didn't recognize. Close to her right was something he thought to be another pelt, but as he got a closer look, he realized it was a live animal- a deer with glittering fur and silver horns, its head resting contentedly in Artemis' lap.

"Join us, Percy Jackson," the goddess said.

He sat across from her on the old tent floor. The goddess studied him, which sent an uncomfortable prickling feeling down his spine- she had old eyes for such a young girl. He glanced over at the Doctor, if a bit nervously, and found that he was observing him as well.

His eyes had an ancient look to them, too, but it was somehow less unsettling- probably because he looked like an adult rather than a child.

"Are you surprised by my age?" Artemis asked suddenly, as if she had been reading his thoughts.

"Uh… a little," he stammered, but didn't avert his gaze a second time. Artemis sighed.

"I could appear as a grown woman, or a blazing fire, or anything else I want, but this is what I prefer. This is the average age of my Hunters, and all young maidens for whom I am patron, before they go astray."

"G-Go astray?" Percy repeated, tilting his head in confusion.

She rolled her eyes as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Grow up. Become smitten with boys. Become silly, preoccupied, insecure. Forget themselves."

Percy, in turn, let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Oh."

Zoe sat down between the Doctor and Artemis. She glared at Percy for a reason he couldn't quite figure out, other than the fact that he was a boy.

"You must forgive my Hunters if they do not welcome you," Artemis said. "It is very rare that we would have boys in this camp. Boys are usually forbidden to have any contact with the Hunters. The last one to see this camp…" She looked at Zoe. "Which one was it?"

"That boy in Colorado," Zoe replied. Then she smiled. "You turned him into a jackalope."

Suddenly, the Doctor spoke up. He raised an eyebrow as he said, "Forgive me if I sound rude, but I hope that it wore off after a while."

Percy thought the Doctor was going to get vaporized right then and there for his tone of voice. But Artemis simply chuckled and nodded. "Don't worry, it did. But only after he learned his lesson. You're such a pacifist sometimes." She paused, a faint smile appearing on her face. "I do enjoy making jackalopes."

The Doctor shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I suppose even goddesses have to have some fun."

Artemis gave an almost imperceptible shrug in reply. Then she looked back at Percy. "At any rate, Percy, I've asked you here so that you might tell me more of the manticore. Bianca has reported some of the, ah...disturbing things the monster said. But she may not have understood them. I'd like to hear them from you."

And so he told her.

When he finished the story, Artemis let out a sigh and suddenly looked very grave. She put her hand on her silver bow. "I feared this was the answer."

Zoe suddenly shot up. "The scent, my lady?"

Artemis nodded, her eyes darkening. "Yes."

"What scent?" Percy asked.

"Things are stirring that I have not hunted in millennia," Artemis murmured in reply. "Prey so old I have nearly forgotten." She stared at him intently. "We came here tonight sensing the manticore, but he was not the one I seek. Tell me again exactly what Dr. Thorn said."

"Um, 'I hate middle school dances.'"

"No, no. After that."

"He said somebody called the General was going to explain things to me."

Zoe's face paled. She turned to Artemis and started to say something, but Artemis raised her hand.

"Go on, Percy," the goddess said.

"Well, then Thorn was talking about the Great Stir Pot-"

"-Stirring," Bianca corrected.

"Yeah. And he said, 'Soon we shall have the most important monster of all—the one that shall bring about the downfall of Olympus.'"

Artemis suddenly became so still and pale that she could have been a marble statue. Even the Doctor looked worried- albeit more because of the goddess' state rather than Percy's words.

"Maybe he was lying," Percy added as a feeble attempt at reassurance. Artemis, in turn, slowly shook her head.

"No. He was not. I've been too slow to see the signs. I must hunt this monster."

Zoe had a look on her face that made it seem like she was trying very hard not to be afraid, but nodded. "We will leave right away, my lady."

But Artemis shook her head again. "No, Zoe. I must do this alone."

"But, Artemis-" Zoe tried to protest.

"This task is too dangerous even for the Hunters. You know where I must start my search. You cannot go there with me," Artemis said firmly.

Zoe's face fell and she sighed, but nodded anyway. " you wish, my lady."

Suddenly, the Doctor spoke up. "Lady Artemis," he said softly, leaning over to look at her. "I won't pretend that you're not much, much stronger than I am. I'm no god, Hunter, or even a half-blood. I'm mortal. But even so, I'm very good at helping people. Protecting them. And wherever you're going, whatever it is you're hunting, I know you'll certainly need protection. If you will not allow your Hunters to come, let me go with you. Please."

Now that surprised Percy. A mortal offering to protect a goddess. That took guts. And maybe a bit of stupidity, too.

Artemis shook her head again. "Doctor..." she murmured, leaning to the side to place her hand on top of his own. "You're too self-sacrificing for your own good. And you let things get to you." She paused, sighing. "I will not allow the debt you feel you must repay to play a part in your death. There are others you saved who fully relied on your protection- and only your protection- in the past, and there will be more who will in the future. You've saved countless lives and peoples. I won't take their defender from them. My answer is no."

The Doctor smiled faintly at her. "And here I thought you hated me," he joked, chuckling. Artemis, in turn, shook her head and let out an exasperated sigh. "You're insufferable. Sometimes...I do hate you. The rest of the time, I'm annoyed by you." Then she paused. "If you feel so obligated to repay your debt, then do this for me. Don't follow and give me protection- I'm immortal, I'll be all right one way or another. You know this. Instead, protect the half-bloods and my Hunters, if possible. Help those that can die. Keep them alive as long as you are able. If you do this for me, then consider your debt paid."

Percy raised an eyebrow. This mortal man owed the Goddess of the Hunt a debt? Of what kind? Did she do a favor for him? Save his life? Provide him with something he wanted?

He stopped asking himself questions when the Doctor sighed, smiled to himself, and shook his head. "My's not about the debt. Not completely. I simply want to protect people. It's almost like I'm hardwired to do so. And...I admire you. You care for your Hunters, protect them with your power. How could I not want to help someone like that?"

Artemis showed no emotion. She didn't smile, didn't roll her eyes or snap at him. She simply took a deep breath, then said, "Then will you do as I request? Do you promise to protect these half-bloods and my Hunters to the best of your ability, should they require it?"

"Yes, Artemis," he said, nodding. "I promise."

Chapter Text

After that statement, silence fell. But only for a brief moment.

"I will find the creature," Artemis vowed. "And I shall bring it back to Olympus by winter solstice. It will be all the proof I need to convince the Council of the Gods of how much danger we are in."

Percy tilted his head. "You know what the monster is?"

In answer, Artemis tightened her grip on her bow. "Let us pray I am wrong."

The Doctor spoke up then. "Can goddesses pray?"

Percy almost laughed- he had been about to ask that himself.

The faintest hint of a smile graced Artemis' lips. "You ask that, and yet you pray to no one, though you are mortal." Then she fixed her eyes on Percy. "Before I go, Percy Jackson, I have a small task for you."

"Does it involve getting turned into a jackalope?"

"Sadly, no," she replied. "I want you to escort the Hunters back to Camp Half-Blood. They can stay there in safety until I return."

"What?" Zoe blurted out. "But, Artemis, we hate that place. The last time we stayed there-"

"-Yes, I know," Artemis said, cutting her off. "But I'm sure Dionysus will not hold a grudge just because of a little, ah, misunderstanding. It's your right to use Cabin Eight whenever you are in need. Besides, I hear they rebuilt the cabins you burned down."

Zoe muttered something about foolish campers while the Doctor raised his eyebrows. Artemis then turned to Bianca. "And now there is one last decision to make. Have you made up your mind, my girl?"

"I'm still thinking about it," Bianca murmured.

"Wait," Percy said. "Thinking about what?"

She replied slowly, "They...they've invited me to join the Hunt."

"What?" Percy blurted out. "But you can't! You have to come to Camp Half-Blood so Chiron can train you. It's the only way you can learn to survive."

"It is not the only way for a girl," Zoe said.

Percy couldn't quite believe he was hearing this. "Bianca, camp is cool! It's got a pegasus stable and a sword-fighting arena and…I mean, what do you get by joining the Hunters?"

"To begin with," Zoe said, "immortality."

He stared at her, then at Artemis. "She's kidding, right?"

"Zoe rarely kids about anything," Artemis said. "My Hunters follow me on my adventures. They are my maidservants, my companions, my sisters-in-arms. Once they swear loyalty to me, they are indeed immortal… unless they fall in battle, which is unlikely. Or break their oath."

"What oath?" I said.

"To forswear romantic love forever," Artemis said. "To never grow up, never get married. To be a maiden eternally."

"Like you?"

The goddess nodded.

Percy tried to imagine the life she was describing. Being immortal, spending eternity in the company of middle-school age girls and a goddess, hunting. He couldn't get his mind around why Bianca- or anyone- would want that. "So you just go around the country recruiting half-bloods—"

"Not just half-bloods," Zoe interrupted. "Lady Artemis does not discriminate by birth. All who honor the goddess may join. Half-bloods, nymphs, mortals—"

"Which are you, then?"

Anger flashed in Zoe's eyes. "That is not thy concern, boy. The point is Bianca may join if she wishes. It is her choice."

"Bianca, this is crazy," Percy said frantically. "What about your brother? Nico can't be a Hunter."

"Certainly not," Artemis agreed. "He will go to camp. Unfortunately, that's the best boys can do."

"Hey!" he protested.

Then, suddenly, the Doctor's voice cut in. "Would everybody please shut up?!"

He's definitely going to get vaporized now, Percy thought to himself.

The Doctor held up both of his hands in a peaceful gesture. "I mean no offense to any of you, but could you stop talking for a second? Please."

He turned to Bianca, smiling easily at her. "Bianca...I know you don't really know me, and I don't know you, either. But even so, I'd like to tell you something."

"T-Tell me what?" Bianca stammered- Percy could tell she was nervous.

The Doctor sighed. "Your life is your own. Think about what your life would be like one way or the other, then ask yourself what you want. It's completely your choice. I'm sure everyone in here would understand that," he said, concluding with firm looks at both Percy and Zoe.

Bianca nodded. "Okay." Then she turned to Artemis. "Will my brother be okay?"

"If you were to join the Hunt, you could see him from time to time," Artemis assured Bianca. "But you will be free of responsibility. He will have the camp counselors to take care of him. And you will have a new family. Us."

"A new family," Bianca repeated dreamily. "Free of responsibility." Then she turned to Zoe. "Is it worth it?"

Zoe nodded. "It is."

Bianca's expression grew resolute, serious. "What do I have to do?"

"Say this," Zoe told her. "'I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis.'"

"I...I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis," Bianca said slowly.

"'I turn my back on the company of men, accept eternal maidenhood, and join the Hunt.'"

Bianca repeated the lines. "That's it?"

Zoe nodded again. "If Lady Artemis accepts thy pledge, then it is binding." Artemis, in turn, nodded. "I accept."

The flames in the brazier brightened, casting a silver glow over the room. Bianca looked no different, but she took a deep breath and opened her eyes wide. "I feel… stronger."

Zoe smiled. "Welcome, sister."

"Remember your pledge," Artemis said firmly. "It is now your life."

Percy found himself unable to speak. He felt like a trespasser- he had fought and suffered so much only to lose Bianca to a group of immortal girls.

"Do not despair, Percy Jackson," Artemis said. "You will still get to show the di Angelos your camp. And if Nico so chooses, he can stay there."

"Great," he replied, doing his best to not sound surly. "How are we supposed to get there?"

Artemis closed her eyes. "Dawn is approaching. Zoe, break camp. You must get to Long Island quickly and safely. I shall summon a ride from my brother."

Zoe didn't look very happy about that statement, but she nodded and told Bianca to follow her. As she was leaving, Bianca paused in front of Percy. "I'm sorry, Percy. But I want this. I really, really do." Then she turned her head, smiled at the Doctor, then walked out.

Then she was gone, leaving Percy alone with the strangest mortal he'd ever seen and a twelve-year-old goddess.

"So," he said glumly, "We're going to get a ride from your brother, huh?"

Artemis sighed and nodded, her silver eyes gleaming. "Yes, boy. You see, Bianca di Angelo is not the only one with an annoying brother. It's time for you to meet my irresponsible twin, Apollo."

Outside the tent, Artemis assured Percy that dawn was coming, but it was hard for him to believe her- it was colder and darker and snowier than ever. Up on the hill, Westover Hall's windows were completely dark. Privately, Percy wondered if the teachers had even noticed the di Angelos and Dr. Thorn were missing yet, and didn't want to be around when they did. With his luck, the only name Mrs. Gottschalk would remember was "Percy Jackson," and then he'd find himself the subject of a nationwide manhunt...again.

The Doctor was almost as restless as he was, hopping from foot to foot and wringing his hands. Artemis noticed, too, for she looked up and snapped, "What's gotten into you?"

He sighed. "I'd...rather not be here when your brother shows up. He-"

Artemis finished his sentence for him. "Let me guess, you had to go and make another bet with him. Only this time, you lost."

The Doctor nodded sheepishly. "Yeah. Pretty much."

She huffed. "Fine, you can meet them there. I won't tell Apollo you were here."

In turn, he grinned. "Thank you, Artemis. You're a lifesaver." He bowed one last time, then made the same warding-off-evil gesture Grover had taught Percy. "Good luck, my lady. You'll need it."

Artemis nodded, then raised a brow at him. "I'm assuming you have transportation."

He nodded, grinning. "Same as always. That 'noisy old thing', as you used to call her."

"Well, she is," Artemis replied. "It was simply an accurate description."

The Doctor smirked at her. "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, then. I'll see you soon."

With that, he spun around and disappeared into the woods. After a long silence, a harsh wheezing, groaning sound filled the air. It was the same noise Percy knew he had heard just before the Hunters- and, subsequently, the Doctor- showed up.

What kind of transportation makes that noise? He wondered.

When the TARDIS had successfully landed, the Doctor made sure it was in a concealed place before approaching Half-Blood Hill. He'd been here before, but not in a long time. At the very front, he noticed something that he'd never seen there before- a pine tree. Draped on one of its branches was something golden and glittering. Huh. That's new.

Then he saw Percy, Thalia, and Nico bounding over. Thalia beckoned furiously with her hand. "Get over here, you moron!" she hissed.

He stepped closer to them, but stopped when Thalia held up her hand. "The border. You can't get in yet. One second."

She paused, clearing her throat. "I, Thalia Grace, give you permission to enter the camp."

Then she jerked her head to the side. "Come on."

All the Doctor could do was follow her.

Percy had never seen Camp Half-Blood in the winter before, and the snow surprised him. After all, the climate within was controlled- nothing got inside unless Mr. D wanted it to.

He thought it would be warm and sunny, but instead the snow had been allowed to fall lightly. Frost covered the chariot track and the strawberry fields. The cabins were decorated with tiny flickering lights, like Christmas lights, except they seemed to be balls of real fire. More lights glowed in the woods, and weirdest of all, a fire flickered in the attic window of the Big House, where the Oracle dwelt, imprisoned in an old mummified body.

Percy watched the Doctor, who seemed to be very fascinated by it all. "I've seen this place before, but it gets more interesting every time I come back," he murmured.

Thalia rolled her eyes. "Come on, we'll introduce you to Chiron." Then she turned and found Zoe walking over.

"I see the mortal is still with us," Zoe said stiffly. "I hope you know the significance of this place, Doctor."

He nodded. "I've been here before, Zoe. You know this."

Zoe huffed, frustrated. "Never mind. I'll go check on the Hunters, see if we can get rid of Grover." With a toss of her head, she turned and stalked away.

Thalia glowered at her back as she left. "What's her problem?" Looking back at the Doctor, she said, "Does she not like you or something?"

"Or something," he replied with a shrug. "Now, I already know Chiron, but I wouldn't mind saying hello."

Thalia smirked. "Good, because Nico hasn't met him yet and you're stuck with us, pretty boy."

The Doctor chuckled. "I'd ask you to stop calling me that, but I know you'd simply ignore me."

The second thing that surprised Percy as they made their way through the camp was how empty it was. He knew most half-bloods only trained during the summer, but it was still odd. He spotted Charles Beckendorf from the Hephaestus cabin stoking the forge outside the camp armory. The Stoll brothers, Travis and Connor, from the Hermes cabin, were picking the lock on the camp store. A few kids from the Ares cabin were having a snowball fight with the wood nymphs at the edge of the forest. That was about everyone he saw. Even his old rival from the Ares cabin, Clarisse, didn't seem to be around.

The Big House was decorated with strings of red and yellow fireballs that warmed the porch but didn't seem to catch anything on fire. Inside, flames crackled in the hearth. The air smelled like hot chocolate. Mr. D, the camp director, and Chiron were playing a quiet game of cards in the parlor.

Chiron's brown beard was shaggier for the winter. His curly hair had grown a little longer. He wore a fuzzy sweater with a hoofprint design on it, and he had a blanket on his lap that almost hid his wheelchair completely. When he caught sight of the group, he smiled.

"Percy! Thalia!" Then he paused, blinking several times. "Well, now, I don't recognize you, but you seem familiar," he said, glancing at the Doctor. "Have we met before?"

The Doctor grinned. "Yes, as a matter of fact, we have. I'm the Doctor. It's just been quite a while."

Chiron's eyes widened. "Now I remember you! Forgive me." Then he chuckled. "You're the mortal who was somehow clever enough to meet many of the gods."

From behind his cards, Dionysus scoffed. Chiron, however, ignored him, instead turning to glance at Nico. "Ah, and this must be..."

"Nico di Angelo," Percy supplied. "He and his sister are half-bloods."

Chiron breathed a sigh of relief. "You succeeded, then."


His smile melted. "What's wrong? And where is Annabeth?"

"Oh, dear," Mr. D said in a bored voice. "Not another one lost."

The Doctor glared, but said nothing.

Percy had been trying not to pay attention to Mr. D, but he was hard to ignore in his neon orange leopard-skin warm-up suit and his purple running shoes. A golden laurel wreath was tilted sideways on his curly black hair, which meant must've won the last hand of cards.

"What do you mean?" Thalia asked. "Who else is lost?"

Just then, Grover trotted into the room, grinning like a loon. He had a black eye and red lines on his face that looked like a slap mark. "The Hunters are all moved in!"

Chiron frowned. "The Hunters, eh? I see we have much to talk about." He glanced at Nico. "Grover, perhaps you should take our young friend to the den and show him our orientation film."

Grover started to argue, but quickly stopped. "But… Oh, right. Yes, sir."

"Orientation film?" Nico asked. "Is it G or PG? 'Cause Bianca is kinda strict-"

"-It's PG-13," Grover said.

"Cool!" Nico happily followed him out of the room.

"Now," Chiron said to Thalia, Percy, and the Doctor, "perhaps you three should sit down and tell us the whole story."

When they were done, Chiron turned to Mr. D. "We should launch a search for Annabeth immediately."

"I'll go," all three said at the same time.

Mr. D sniffed. "Certainly not!"

Percy and Thalia both started to complain, but Mr. D held up his hand. He had that purplish angry fire in his eyes that usually meant something horrible was going to happen to them if they didn't shut up. The Doctor hadn't said anything, which Percy found odd, but he saw a similar cold fire in his eyes.

"From what you have told me," Mr. D said, "we have broken even on this escapade. We have, ah, regrettably lost Annie Bell-"

"-Annabeth," Percy snapped. She'd gone to camp since she was seven, and still Mr. D pretended not to know her name.

"Yes, yes," he said. "And you procured a small annoying boy to replace her. So I see no point risking further half-bloods on a ridiculous rescue. The possibility is very great that this Annie girl is dead."

Percy wanted to strangle Dionysus, and he got the feeling that the Doctor did too, because he snapped, "You know, you could at least act like you care."

"Annabeth may be alive," Chiron said, but Percy could tell he was having trouble sounding upbeat. He'd practically raised Annabeth all those years she was a year-round camper, before she'd given living with her father and stepmother a second try. "She's very bright. If… if our enemies have her, she will try to play for time. She may even pretend to cooperate."

The Doctor nodded. "Yeah, I suppose. Trust me, Annabeth is one of the smartest people I know."

Thalia seemed to agree with him. "Oh, absolutely. And besides, Luke will want her alive."

That was when the Doctor's face paled. "Luke? Why would he..." He paused. "Oh, don't tell me he's-"

Thalia nodded gravely. "Yeah. For whatever reason, he decided to serve our enemy now." His eyes widened. "Who exactly is your enemy?"

Thalia suddenly went very pale- Percy knew why. She didn't want to say Kronos' name. "I'll, uh...I'll explain later. Why don't you go find something to do while we talk? I need a minute with these two."

"Alright," he replied, then turned around and walked away.

Chapter Text

When Thalia found the Doctor again, he was firing arrows at one of the archery targets. She raised an eyebrow at him as she walked over. "Archery, huh? Never took you as the kind of person that did that."

He shrugged, let loose another arrow. "I loathe weapons, and I'd never use this on another person. So, yes, it is a bit odd. But there's something about trying to hit a helps me focus. Makes my brain slow down a bit," he said, chuckling. Then he set down the bow and arrows and focused on her.

"So...clearly, a lot has happened since the last time I was here- and since I last saw you." Thalia nodded in agreement. "Yep. And, well, after all the things you and I went through when I was on the run with Luke and Annabeth, I think you deserve to know everything."

She told him the full story- their journey to Camp Half-Blood, getting turned into a pine tree. What she heard about Percy's arrival and his being claimed as a son of Poseidon. How he retrieved Zeus' stolen master bolt and, a year later, found the Golden Fleece and healed the tree that had been poisoned, returning her to her body in the process.

And, of course, Luke. She had to tell him that he was behind the theft of Zeus' bolt, as he tried to start a war among the gods. She told him he was the one who poisoned her in tree form, as he knew a hero would go after the Golden Fleece- he had wanted to find it so that he could restore the Titan he was taking orders from. Kronos.

When she spoke the Titan Lord's name, the Doctor suddenly grew very pale. He stayed that way until she was done telling him the story. Then he nodded numbly to show that he understood everything and excused himself.

Thalia was left standing in front of the archery range, drained and dazed. Without knowing why she walked over to the target he had previously been firing arrows at. She ran her fingers over the protruding arrows, smirking when she took note of where they had landed.

Perfect bulls-eyes. If he was a girl, and younger, the Hunters would want him in their ranks.

After Percy ended the message to his brother Tyson, he was alone again in his cabin, feeling lonelier than before. He let out a heavy sigh.

A moment later, though, there was a knock at his door, and he yelped, startled. Then came the voice- polite and apologetic.

"Percy! Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. It's,'s me! The Doctor. Mind if I come in for a minute?"

Percy ran over to the door and opened it. "Uh...hi. You can come in, that's fine," he said awkwardly, backing away from the cabin door and opening it enough for him to enter. The Doctor gave him a friendly smile and stepped inside.

Once Percy had clicked the door shut behind them, the Doctor broke the silence. "I just wanted to apologize again," he said, sighing. "About Annabeth. Well, that, and...I talked to Thalia." He looked at the ground. "She told me about all of it. Well, what she knew, anyway. About Luke, in particular. What he did."

Percy's eyes widened. "So you did know Luke?"

The Doctor nodded. "Yep. I met Annabeth first, though. She was just seven years old when she took off on her own." He looked back up at Percy, a fond smile on his face. "She was one of the smartest people I ever met. I knew she was a half-blood because she told me, and while she did tell me who her mother was, I figured it out beforehand. She's...also the reason I'm indebted to the goddess Artemis."

Percy raised an eyebrow at him. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that Artemis saved the life of the girl I considered myself responsible for," the Doctor replied, his expression serious. "When I first met her, she was being chased by a monster. I got her to safety, and she was first found by Thalia and Luke when I was still with her. If it hadn't been for the fact that Annabeth wanted to stay with them so badly, I'd have looked after her myself. Even so, I..." he paused, sighing. "I kept track of them. I visited them, made sure they had whatever they needed. It was on one of these visits, when I was with Annabeth, that we would have been killed by a monster had Artemis and her Hunters not intervened and saved us."

"Oh," was all Percy could think to say. "That's how you know Artemis."

Much to Percy's surprise, the Doctor shook his head. "No, no. I met her long before that. I helped her with something a very long time ago, so now she considers me a sort, I suppose. Even though she doesn't really like me all that much." He sighed, put his hands in his pockets. "I'm telling you all this for a reason, Percy. Annabeth...she's almost like a daughter to me. And I promise you I'll stop at nothing to find her and bring her home safely. I just thought that you should know that."

Percy nodded in understanding. "All right. Um...thanks," he said, a small smile appearing on his face. "That...that helps." He paused for a brief moment. "How long are you staying here?"

"Long enough to get more information," he replied. "The more I know about what took Annabeth, the better. I should talk to the Hunters."

"Well, you won't get to tonight," Percy said, smirking. "Everyone will be preoccupied."

The Doctor nodded and let out a resigned sigh. "Yeah, I know. I'll just find something to do. And if anyone needs me, tell them I'll either be in the Big House or at the archery range."

Despite the promise the Doctor had made to him, Percy was fairly miserable at dinner that night. He was alone at his table- much like Thalia. Due to camp rules, they couldn't sit together.

The only group of people that even seemed to be having a good time were the Hunters. They ate and drank and laughed like a carefree family. Zoe was seated at the head of the table as if she was their mother. She didn't laugh as much as the others, but she did smile from time to time.

She looks nicer when she smiles, Percy mused.

Bianca looked as if she was having the time of her life- she laughed as loudly as the rest of them. Percy watched as she tried to learn how to arm wrestle from a big girl who'd picked a fight with an Ares kid on the basketball court. The bigger girl beat her every time, but Bianca didn't seem to mind.

When they had all finished eating, Chiron made the customary toast to the gods and formally welcomed the Hunters of Artemis. The clapping was fairly halfhearted. Then he announced the "goodwill" capture-the-flag game for tomorrow night, which got a much better reception. Every few minutes, Percy looked around for any sign of the Doctor, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Afterward, everyone trailed back to their cabins for early lights out. Percy was exhausted, which meant he fell asleep easily. That was the good part.

The not-so-good part: He had a terrible nightmare- even by his standards.

Annabeth was on a dark hillside, shrouded in fog. To him, it almost seemed like the Underworld, because he immediately felt claustrophobic and couldn't see the sky above- just a close, heavy darkness, as if he were in a cave.

Annabeth struggled up the hill. Old broken Greek columns of black marble were scattered around, as though something had blasted a huge building to ruins.

"Thorn!" Annabeth cried. "Where are you? Why did you bring me here?" She scrambled over a section of broken wall and came to the crest of the hill.

She gasped.

There was Luke. And he was in pain.

He was crumpled on the rocky ground, trying to rise. The blackness seemed to be thicker around him, fog swirling hungrily. His clothes were in tatters and his face was scratched and drenched with sweat,

"Annabeth!" he called. "Help me! Please!"

She ran forward.

Percy tried to cry out, He's a traitor! Don't trust him! But his voice wouldn't work in the dream.

Annabeth had tears in her eyes. She reached down, as if she intended to touch Luke's face, hesitated at the last moment.

"What happened?" she asked.

"They left me here," Luke groaned. "Please. It's killing me."

Percy had no idea what was wrong with him- he wasn't wounded. The only thing he could see was that he seemed to be struggling against an invisible force or curse. Almost as if the fog was suffocating him.

"Why should I trust you?" Annabeth asked. Her voice was filled with hurt.

"You shouldn't," Luke said. "I've been terrible to you. But if you don't help me, I'll die."

Let him die, Percy wanted to scream. Luke had tried to kill them both in cold blood too many times. He didn't deserve anything from Annabeth.

Then the darkness above Luke began to crumble, like a cavern roof in an earthquake. Huge chunks of black rock began falling. Annabeth rushed in just as a crack appeared, and the whole ceiling dropped. She held onto it somehow- tons of rock. She kept it from collapsing on her and Luke just with her own strength. That's impossible, Percy thought. She shouldn't be able to do that.

Luke rolled free, gasping. "Thanks," he managed.

"Help me hold it," Annabeth groaned.

Luke caught his breath. His face was covered in grime and sweat. He rose unsteadily.

"I knew I could count on you." He began to walk away as the trembling blackness threatened to crush Annabeth.

"HELP ME!" she pleaded.

"Oh, don't worry," Luke said, chuckling. "Your help is on the way. It's all part of the plan. In the meantime, try not to die."

The ceiling of darkness began to crumble again, pushing Annabeth against the ground.

The next thing Percy knew, he was sitting bolt upright in bed, clawing at the sheets. There was no sound in his cabin except the gurgle of the saltwater spring. The clock on the nightstand read just after midnight.

It had only been a dream, but he was sure of two things: Annabeth was in terrible danger. And Luke was responsible.

After breakfast the next morning, he told Grover about his dream while they were seated in the meadow watching the satyrs chase the wood nymphs through the snow. The nymphs had promised to kiss the satyrs if they got caught, but they hardly ever did. Usually, the nymph would let the satyr get up a full head of steam, then she'd turn into a snow-covered tree and the satyr would slam into it headfirst and get a pile of snow dumped on him.

When Percy was done telling the story of his nightmare, Grover started twirling his finger in his shaggy leg fur.

"A cave ceiling collapsed on her?" he asked.

Percy nodded. "Yeah. What the heck does that mean?"

Grover shook his head. "I don't know. But after what Zoe dreamed-"

Percy cut him off midsentence, exclaiming, "Wait, what do you mean...Zoe had a dream like that?"

Grover sighed. "I… I don't know, exactly. About three in the morning she came to the Big House and demanded to talk to Chiron. She looked really panicked."

That was when Percy raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "Wait, how do you know this?"

Grover blushed. "I was sort of camped outside the Artemis cabin."

"What for?"

"Just to be, you know, near them," he said, still looking embarrassed. Percy, in turn, scoffed and rolled his eyes.

"You're a stalker with hooves."

"I am not!" Grover shot back, an offended look on his face. "Anyway, I followed her to the Big House and hid in a bush and watched the whole thing. She got real upset when Argus wouldn't let her in. It was kind of a dangerous scene."

Percy tried to imagine that. Argus was the head of security for camp- a large, muscular blond man with eyes all over his body. He rarely showed himself unless something serious was going on. A fight between him and Zoe Nightshade was definitely something he wouldn't want to see.

"Well, what did she say?" he asked.

Grover grimaced. "Well, she starts talking really old-fashioned when she gets upset, so it was kind of hard to understand. But something about Artemis being in trouble and needing the Hunters. And then she called Argus a boil-brained lout… I think that's a bad thing. And then he called her-"

Percy cut him off. "-Whoa, wait. How could Artemis be in trouble?"

"I… well, finally Chiron came out in his pajamas and his horse tail in curlers and-"

"He wears curlers in his tail?"

Grover covered his mouth.

"Sorry," Percy said. "Go on."

"Well, Zoe said she needed permission to leave camp immediately. Chiron refused. He reminded Zoe that the Hunters were supposed to stay here until they received orders from Artemis. And she said…" Grover gulped. "She said 'How are we to get orders from Artemis if Artemis is lost?'"

"What do you mean lost? Like she needs directions?" Percy asked impatiently.

"No. I think she meant gone. Taken. Kidnapped."

"Kidnapped?" he repeated, incredulous. "How would you kidnap an immortal goddess? Is that even possible?"

Grover nodded slowly. "Well, yeah. I mean, it happened to Persephone."

Percy sighed in frustration. "Yeah, but, she was like, the goddess of flowers." Grover looked offended at that statement. "Springtime," he corrected, and Percy rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, whatever. But my point is, Artemis is a lot more powerful than that. Who could kidnap her? And why?"

Grover shook his head miserably. "I don't know. Kronos?"

But he can't be that powerful already," Percy reasoned. Then, in a lower, more worried voice, he asked, "Can he?"

In Percy's mind, it was unlikely- the last time he and Grover had seen Kronos- well, the last time they'd seen Luke claiming he was pulling the Titan out of Tartarus bit by bit- he'd been in tiny pieces. He knew Kronos could influence people in their dreams and trick them but didn't see how he could physically overcome Artemis if he was still pretty much a pile of...evil bark mulch.

"I don't know," Grover said, breaking Percy from his thoughts. "I think somebody would know if Kronos had re-formed. The gods would be more nervous, that's for sure. But still, it's weird, you having a nightmare the same night as Zoe. It's almost like-"

"-They're connected," Percy finished for him.

He thought about Zoe's nightmare, which she'd had only a few hours after his.

"I've got to talk to Zoe," he said firmly.

Grover nodded, but then spoke up. "Um...before you do..." Suddenly he looked very sheepish. "I think they may have been scouting us. I found something in Annabeth's backpack, and..." He paused, sighing. "Well, it seems to me that maybe Annabeth had been thinking about joining them."

Needless to say, Percy didn't handle that news very well. While he did his best to stay calm, he fought very hard to keep his urge to strangle the Hunters one at a time in check.

He tried to keep busy but was driven distracted due to being worried sick about Annabeth. He needed some sort of help or advice. He knew Chiron was probably the best person to talk to, but something held Percy back. He had a nagging feeling Chiron would try to protect him, the way he always did. He might not tell Percy everything he knew.

And then he remembered- no one would be in the Big House. There was someone else...or rather, something else he could ask for guidance.

When he reached the front door to the Big House, he found that there was the sound of chaos coming from the right side. Loud thuds and even louder voices- well, one loud voice, anyway. The other voice was quieter but firm- they seemed to be trying to calm the yelling person.

Percy peeked around the corner and saw the Doctor and Thalia. He knew it was them from their voices, but what surprised him was what he saw happening.

The Doctor appeared to be kicking the side wall of the house in frustration. "I knew it! I bloody knew this was going to happen! And no one's doing anything! I would, but I have no idea where Artemis might be!"

"Doctor, listen, you have to calm down," Thalia said, laying one hand on his arm. "Relax." He inhaled deeply and grew quiet, while Thalia smiled.

"There. Now, stop beating up on the Big House and try to think of a plan. Remember, you're good at making plans."

"A plan," he repeated, looking over at her. Then he smiled. "Make a plan. Right, I can do that."

Thalia chuckled. "Come on, pretty boy. Let's go inside." She grabbed his hand and started to lead him in the direction where Percy was standing. The Doctor, in turn, chuckled and said, "You know, the 'pretty boy' nickname is getting a bit old. Maybe think of something else?"

Thalia's eyes darted up and down like she was studying him for a moment, then she shook her head. "Nah," she replied, smirking.

He laughed at that, then kept walking.

Before Percy could turn around and avoid their line of sight, Thalia called out, "I see you over there, Jackson."

He slowly turned around, sure there was a sheepish look on his face. "Hi, Thalia. Doctor."

The Doctor let out a quiet laugh. "What brings you over here?"

"Um..." Percy said nothing, trying to think up a good lie. He didn't necessarily want them knowing what he was up to.

Thalia let out a huff. "Well, if you're gonna just stand there all day, I'd better go in." She turned to the left, then stormed up the steps to the Big House, slamming the door behind her. Percy winced at the loud sound.

The Doctor gave him an easy half-smile. "Fine, don't tell me. I can figure it out easily enough. Oh, and, careful with that Oracle, would you?" He winked, then headed towards the Big House's front door himself. Percy tilted his head in confusion, then shrugged and followed him.

His blood was humming in his ears as Percy ran into the house and up the stairs. He'd only done this once before, and still had nightmares about it. He opened the trap door and stepped into the attic.

The room was dark and dusty and cluttered with junk, just like Percy remembered. There were shields with monster teeth marks in them, swords bent in the shapes of daemon heads, and a bunch of taxidermied creatures, like a stuffed harpy and a bright orange python.

Over by the window, sitting on a three-legged stool, was the shriveled-up mummy of an old lady in a tie-dyed dress. The Oracle. Percy gulped at the sight of her, his heart picking up its pace.

He made himself walk toward her. Percy waited for green mist to billow from the mummy's mouth like it had before, but nothing happened.

"Hi," he said awkwardly. "Uh, what's up?" He asked, then winced at how stupid that sounded. There could never be a good answer to that question when it was asked to someone who was dead and stuck in an attic. But even so, Percy knew the spirit of the Oracle was in there somewhere. He could feel a cold presence in the room, like a coiled sleeping snake.

"I have a question," he said, a little louder. "I need to know about Annabeth. How can I save her?"

There was no answer. The sun slanted through the dirty attic window, lighting the dust motes dancing in the air.

He waited longer.

Then Percy began to grow angry- he was being given the silent treatment by a corpse.

"All right," he snapped. "Fine. I'll figure it out myself."

Percy turned and bumped into a big table full of souvenirs. It seemed more cluttered than the last time he was there. Heroes stored all kinds of stuff in the attic: quest trophies they no longer wanted to keep in their cabins or stuff that held painful memories. He knew Luke had stored a dragon claw somewhere up there- the one that had scarred his face.

There was a broken sword hilt labeled: This broke and Leroy got killed. 1999.

Then Percy noticed a pink silk scarf with a label attached to it. Picking up the tag, he tried to read it.




Percy stared, dumbstruck, at the scarf. He'd completely forgotten about it. Two years ago, when he found it at an abandoned water park, Annabeth had ripped it from his grasp and said something along the lines of, Oh, no. No love magic for you!

He'd always assumed she'd simply thrown it out. And yet...there it was. She'd kept it all this time? And why had she stashed it in the attic?

Percy glanced over at the mummy that held the Oracle. She hadn't moved, but the shadows across her face made it look like she was smiling gruesomely.

He dropped the scarf and tried not to run toward the exit.

Chapter Text

Percy was fuming- not unlike when he'd first encountered Ares. Not only had Camp Half-Blood lost the capture the flag game, he'd gotten into an argument with Thalia. Both of them were ready to fight. Thalia had already struck him in the chest with a bolt of lightning. He willed all the water in the creek to rise, deaf to Chiron yelling at them to calm down and knock it off, until he saw something in the distance. He lost all his anger and concentration at once. All the water fell back into the creek bed, shocking Thalia into turning around to see what had gotten his attention.

Someone… something was approaching. It was shrouded in a murky green mist, but as it got closer, the campers and Hunters gasped.

"This is impossible," Chiron stammered. Percy had never heard him sound so nervous. "It...she has never left the attic. Never."

And yet, the withered mummy that held the Oracle shuffled forward until she stood in the center of the group. Mist curled around everyone's feet, turning the snow a sickly shade of green. As she walked closer, Percy caught sight of the Doctor running over from behind them. "The Oracle's gone! Where- Oh."

He looked just as he had when Thalia mentioned Luke, Percy realized. Still and pale enough to pass for a marble statue.

No one dared move. Then her voice hissed inside Percy's head. Apparently everyone could hear it because several clutched their hands over the ears. The Doctor only winced.

I am the spirit of Delphi, the voice said. Speaker of the prophecies of Phoebus Apollo, slayer of the mighty Python.

The Oracle regarded Percy with its cold, dead eyes. Then she turned unmistakably toward Zoe Nightshade. Approach, Seeker, and ask.

Zoe swallowed. "What must I do to help my goddess?"

The Oracle's mouth opened, and green mist poured out. Percy saw the vague image of a mountain, and a girl standing at the barren peak. It was Artemis, but she was wrapped in chains, fettered to the rocks. She was kneeling, her hands raised as if to fend off an attacker, and she seemed to be in pain. The Oracle spoke, her words hissing.

Six shall go west to the goddess in chains,

One shall be lost in the land without rain,

The bane of Olympus shows the trail,

Campers, Hunters, and mortals combined prevail,

The Titan's curse must two withstand,

And one shall perish by a parent's hand.

Then, as they were all watching, the mist swirled and retreated like a great green serpent into the mummy's mouth. The Oracle sat down on a rock and became as still as she'd been in the attic- as if she might sit by the creek for a hundred years.

Percy sighed as he walked into the Big House's rec room- a council had been called to discuss the prophecy, and as he was a cabin leader, Percy had to attend. The meeting was held around a Ping-Pong table. Dionysus waved his hand and supplied snacks: cheese, crackers, and several bottles of red wine. Then Chiron reminded him that wine was against his restrictions and most of the people in the room were underage. Mr. D sighed. With a snap of his fingers, the wine turned to Diet Coke. No one drank that either.

Mr. D and Chiron (in wheelchair form) sat at one end of the table. Zoe and Bianca di Angelo took the other end. Thalia, Grover, and Percy sat along the right, and the other head councilors- Beckendorf, Silena Beauregard, and the Stoll brothers- sat on the left. The Ares kids were supposed to send a representative, too, but all of them had gotten broken limbs (accidentally) during capture the flag, courtesy of the Hunters. They were resting up in the infirmary. The Doctor, Percy noticed, was leaning up against the wall near the door, fiddling with a long metal cylinder of some kind and nervously fidgeting.

Zoe started the meeting off on a positive note. "This is pointless." The Doctor gave her a sharp look, but she ignored him. "There is no time for talk. Our goddess needs us. The Hunters must leave immediately."

"And go where?" Chiron asked.

"West!" Bianca huffed impatiently. Percy eyed her for a moment, amazed at how different she looked after just a few days with the Hunters. Her dark hair was braided like Zoe's, making it possible for him to actually see her face. She had a splash of freckles across her nose, and her dark eyes vaguely reminded him of someone famous, but he couldn't think of who. She looked like she'd been working out, too- she seemed more muscular- and her skin glowed faintly, like the other Hunters, as if she'd been taking showers in liquified moonlight.

"You heard the prophecy," she continued. "Six shall go west to the goddess in chains. We can get six hunters and go."

"Yes," Zoe agreed. "Artemis is being held hostage! We must find her and free her."

"You're missing something, as usual," Thalia said. "Campers, Hunters, and mortals combined prevail. We're supposed to do this together."

"No!" Zoe said. "The Hunters do not need thy help."

"Your," Thalia grumbled. "Nobody has said thy in, like, three hundred years, Zoe. Get with the times."

Zoe hesitated like she was trying to form the word correctly. " Yerrr. We do not need yerrr help."

Thalia rolled her eyes. "Forget it."

"I fear the prophecy says you do need our help," Chiron said. "Campers and Hunters must cooperate."

"Or do they?" Mr. D mused, swirling his Diet Coke under his nose, smirking. "One shall be lost. One shall perish. That sounds rather nasty, doesn't it? What if you fail because you try to cooperate?"

"Mr. D," Chiron sighed, "with all due respect, whose side are you on?"

From his spot in the corner of the room, the Doctor muttered, "Honestly," under his breath.

Dionysus raised his eyebrows. "Sorry, my dear friends. Just trying to be helpful."

"We're supposed to work together," Thalia said stubbornly. "I don't like it either, Zoe, but you know prophecies. You want to fight against one?"

Zoe grimaced, but Percy could tell she knew Thalia had a point.

"We must not delay," Chiron warned. "Today is Sunday. This very Friday, December twenty-first, is the winter solstice."

"Oh, joy," Dionysus muttered. "Another dull annual meeting."

"Artemis must be present at the solstice," Zoe said. "She has been one of the most vocal on the council arguing for action against Kronos' minions. If she is absent, the gods will decide nothing. We will lose another year of war preparations."

"Are you suggesting that the gods have trouble acting together, young lady?" Dionysus asked.

"Yes, Lord Dionysus."

Mr. D nodded. "Just checking. You're right, of course. Carry on."

"I must agree with Zoe," said Chiron. "Artemis's presence at the winter council is critical. We have only a week to find her. And possibly even more important: to locate the monster she was hunting. Now, we must decide who goes on this quest."

"Three and two," Percy piped up.

Everyone turned to look at him, even Thalia- who had been making an effort to ignore him.

"Look, I know there's supposed to be six," he said, suddenly feeling self-conscious. "But the line about campers, Hunters, and mortals...there's only one mortal here."

Then everyone focused on the Doctor, easing Percy's self-conscious feeling somewhat.

"I'm going," the Doctor replied without hesitation. "Prophecy or no prophecy. After all, time can be rewritten. But I made Artemis a promise to protect her Hunters, and I intend to keep it."

"We do not need thy protection," Zoe snapped. "I will only let thee go because of the prophecy, and thy promise to Lady Artemis."

Percy cut back in. "If he goes, that leaves room for five more. Three Hunters, two from Camp Half-Blood. That's more than fair."

Thalia and Zoe exchanged looks.

"Well," Thalia said slowly, "it does make sense."

Zoe grunted. "I would prefer to take all the Hunters. We will need the strength of numbers."

"You'll be retracing the goddess' path," Chiron reminded her. "Moving quickly. No doubt Artemis tracked the scent of this rare monster, whatever it is, as she moved west. You will have to do the same. The prophecy was clear: The bane of Olympus shows the trail. What would your mistress say? 'Too many Hunters spoil the scent.' A small group is best."

Zoe picked up a Ping-Pong paddle and studied it, a thoughtful look on her face that suggested she was deciding who to hit with it first. "This monster- the bane of Olympus. I have hunted at Lady Artemis' side for many years, yet I have no idea what this beast might be."

Everyone looked at Dionysus- he was the only god present, after all, and gods are expected to know things. He was flipping through a wine magazine, but when everyone grew silent he glanced up. "Well, don't look at me. I'm a young god, remember? I don't keep track of all those ancient monsters and dusty titans. They make for terrible party conversation."

"Chiron," Percy said, forcing himself to sound calm, "you don't have any ideas about the monster?"

Chiron pursed his lips. "I have several ideas, none of them good. And none of them quite make sense. Typhon, for instance, could fit this description. He was truly a bane of Olympus. Or the sea monster Keto. But if either of these were stirring, we would know it. They are ocean monsters the size of skyscrapers. Your father, Poseidon, would already have sounded the alarm. I fear this monster may be more elusive. Perhaps even more powerful." From the corner of his eye, Percy saw the Doctor glance at him and raise his eyebrows.

"That's some serious danger you're facing," Connor Stoll said. "It sounds like at least two of the six are going to die."

"One shall be lost in the land without rain," Beckendorf said. "If I were you, I'd stay out of the desert."

There was a mutter of agreement.

"And the Titan's curse must two withstand," Silena said. "What could that mean?"

Percy saw Chiron and Zoe exchange a nervous look, but whatever they were thinking, they didn't share it. Even the Doctor seemed to be growing more nervous. Something about the Titans must really freak him out, Percy mused.

He reasoned that the Doctor had probably paid more attention when he read about mythology, and as such knew more about just what the Titans were capable of.

Even so, he had a nagging feeling that there was more to the man's unease than what was obvious.

"One shall perish by a parent's hand," Grover said in between bites of crackers and Ping-Pong balls, breaking Percy out of his thoughts. "How is that possible? Whose parent would kill them?"

A heavy silence fell over the table.

Percy glanced at Thalia and wondered if she was thinking the same thing as he was. Years ago, Chiron had had a prophecy about the next child of the three elder gods- Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades- who turned sixteen. Supposedly, that child would make a decision that could save or destroy the gods forever. Because of that, the three gods had taken an oath after World War II not to have any more children. But he and Thalia had been born anyway, and now they were both getting close to sixteen.

Then Percy remembered a conversation he'd had last year with Annabeth. He asked her, if he was so potentially dangerous, why the gods didn't just kill him.

Some of the gods would like to kill you, she'd said. But they're afraid of offending Poseidon.

Could an Olympian parent turn against his half-blood child? Would it sometimes be easier just to let them die? Percy wondered. And if there were any half-bloods that needed to worry about that, it was definitely him and Thalia.

"There will be deaths," Chiron decided. "That much we know."

"Not if I can help it," the Doctor said to himself. Percy made eye contact with him for a moment and found that his gaze was unreadable. Cold and steely, but not angry. More...determined.

"Oh, goody!" Dionysus suddenly exclaimed.

Everyone whirled on him, and the look on the Doctor's face suddenly turned to nothing short of murderous, Percy noticed. Dionysus glanced up innocently from the pages of Wine Connoisseur magazine. "Ah, pinot noir is making a comeback. Don't mind me." The Doctor rolled his eyes, scoffed, and went back to leaning up against the wall.

"Percy is right," Silena Beauregard said. "Two campers should go."

"Oh, I see," Zoe said sarcastically. "And I suppose you wish to volunteer?"

Silena blushed. "I'm not going anywhere with the Hunters. Don't look at me!"

"A daughter of Aphrodite does not wish to be looked at," Zoe scoffed. "What would thy mother say?"

Silena started to get out of her chair, but the Stoll brothers pulled her back.

"Stop it," Beckendorf said in his especially deep and somewhat scary voice, shooting harsh looks at both Silena and Zoe. "Let's start with the Hunters. Which three of you will go?"

Zoe stood. "I shall go, of course, and I will take Phoebe. She is our best tracker."

"The big girl who likes to hit people on the head?" Travis Stoll asked cautiously.

Zoe nodded, and Connor added, "The one who put the arrows in my helmet?"

"Yes," Zoe snapped. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing," Travis said, smiling not-so-innocently. "Just that we have a T-shirt for her from the camp store." They handed her a large silver shirt. Percy caught the word Artemis printed on it. "It's a collector's item. She was admiring it. You want to give it to her?"

Percy knew the Stolls were up to something. They always were. But, he supposed Zoe didn't know them as well as he did, as she just sighed and took the T-shirt. "As I was saying, I will take Phoebe. And I wish Bianca to go."

Bianca looked stunned. "Me? But...I'm so new. I wouldn't be any good."

"You will do fine," Zoe insisted. "There is no better way to prove thyself."

Bianca closed her mouth. Percy realized he felt a bit sorry for her. He thought back to his first quest when he was twelve. He had felt totally unprepared. A little honored, maybe, but a lot resentful and definitely scared. He figured the same thoughts were running around in Bianca's head at the moment.

"And for campers?" Chiron asked. His eyes met Percy's, but he had no idea what Chiron was thinking.

"Me!" Grover stood up so fast he bumped the Ping-Pong table. He brushed cracker crumbs and Ping-Pong ball scraps off his lap. "Anything to help Artemis!"

Zoe wrinkled her nose. "I think not, satyr. You are not even a half-blood."

"But he is a camper," Thalia said. "And he's got a satyr's senses and woodland magic. Can you play a tracker's song yet, Grover?"


Zoe wavered. Percy didn't know what a tracker's song was, but apparently, Zoe thought it was a good thing.

"Very well," Zoe said. "And the second camper?"

"I'll go." Thalia stood and looked around, daring anyone to question her.

Percy knew he'd never been the best at math, but he suddenly became aware that they had reached the number six, and he wasn't included in the group. "Whoa, wait a sec," he said. "I want to go too."

Thalia said nothing. Chiron was still studying Percy, his eyes sad.

"Oh," Grover said, suddenly aware of the problem. "Whoa, yeah, I forgot! Percy has to go. I didn't mean...I'll stay. Percy should go in my place."

"He cannot," Zoe said. "He is a boy. I won't have Hunters traveling with a boy."

"You traveled here with me," he reminded her.

"That was a short-term emergency, and it was ordered by the goddess. I will not go across the country and fight many dangers in the company of a boy."

"What about Grover?" Percy demanded. "Or the Doctor?"

"Grover is a satyr," she replied. "He does not count, as he is not technically a boy." Grover protested at that. "Hey!"

Zoe sighed in frustration and ignored him. "And the Doctor swore an oath to Artemis to aid us. Not only that, but he is her ally, and therefore, he is our ally."

The Doctor almost looked surprised at that. "Thank you, Zoe."

"I have to go," Percy argued, ignoring them. "I need to be on this quest."

"Why?" Zoe asked. "Because of thy friend Annabeth?"

Percy felt himself blushing, and he hated that everyone was looking at him."No! I mean, partly. I just feel like I'm supposed to go!"

No one rose to his defense. Mr. D looked bored, still reading his magazine. Silena, the Stoll brothers, and Beckendorf were staring at the table. Bianca gave him a look of pity. The Doctor was giving him a similar look, but something about his eyes...he seemed much sadder.

"No," Zoe said flatly. "I insist upon this. I will take a satyr if I must, but not a male hero."

Chiron sighed. "The quest is for Artemis. The Hunters should be allowed to approve their companions."

Percy felt his ears ringing as he sat down. He knew Grover and some of the others were looking at him sympathetically, but couldn't meet their eyes. He simply sat still, silent, as Chiron concluded the council.

"So be it," he said. "Thalia and Grover will accompany Zoe, Bianca, and Phoebe. You shall leave at first light. And may the gods" -he glanced at Dionysus- "present company included, we hope- be with you."

Chapter Text

Percy didn't show up for dinner that night, which he quickly realized was a mistake because Chiron and Grover came looking for him.

"Percy, I'm so sorry!" Grover said, sitting down next to him on the bunk. "I didn't know they'd- that you'd- Honest!"

He started to sniffle, and Percy knew that if he didn't cheer him up fast he'd either start bawling or chewing up his mattress. Grover tended to eat household objects whenever he got upset.

"It's okay," Percy lied. "Really. It's fine."

Grover's lower lip trembled. "I wasn't even thinking… I was so focused on helping Artemis. But I promise I'll look everywhere for Annabeth. If I can find her, I will."

Percy nodded, tried to ignore the big crater that was opening up in his chest and filling his whole body with a dull ache.

"Grover," Chiron said, "perhaps you'd let me have a word with Percy?"

"Sure," he sniffled.

Chiron waited.

"Oh," Grover said. "You mean alone. Sure, Chiron." He looked at Percy miserably. "See? Nobody needs a goat." He trotted out the door, blowing his nose on his sleeve.

Chiron sighed and knelt on his horse legs. "Percy, I don't pretend to understand prophecies."

"Yeah," he said miserably. "Well, maybe that's because they don't make any sense."

Chiron gazed at the saltwater spring gurgling in the corner of the room. "Thalia would not have been my first choice to go on this quest. She's too impetuous. She acts without thinking. She is too sure of herself."

"Would you have chosen me?"

"Frankly, no," he said. "You and Thalia are much alike."

"Thanks a lot."

He smiled. "The difference is that you are less sure of yourself than Thalia. That could be good or bad. But one thing I can say: both of you together would be a dangerous thing."

"We could handle it."

"The way you handled it at the creek tonight?"

Percy didn't answer, knowing that Chiron had won that argument.

"Perhaps it is for the best," Chiron mused. "You can go home to your mother for the holidays. If we need you, we can call."

"Yeah," Percy said, looking down at his feet. "Maybe."

He pulled Riptide out of his pocket and set it on the nightstand. It didn't seem that he'd be using it for anything while he was home.

When he saw the pen, Chiron grimaced. "It's no wonder Zoe doesn't want you along, I suppose. Not while you're carrying that particular weapon."

For a moment, Percy didn't understand what he meant. Then he remembered something Chiron had told him a long time ago when he first gave Percy the sword: It has a long and tragic history, which we need not go into.

Percy wanted to ask Chiron about that, but then he pulled a golden drachma from his saddlebag and tossed it to him. "Call your mother, Percy. Let her know you're coming home in the morning. And, ah, for what it's worth… I almost volunteered for this quest myself. I would have gone, if not for the last line."

"One shall perish by a parent's hand. Yeah."

He didn't need to ask. Percy knew Chiron's father was Kronos, the evil Titan Lord himself. The line would make perfect sense if Chiron went on the quest. Kronos didn't care for anyone, including his own children.

"Chiron," he said. "You know what this Titan's curse is, don't you?"

Chiron's face darkened. He made a claw over his heart and pushed outward- an ancient gesture for warding off evil. "Let us hope the prophecy does not mean what I think. Now, good night, Percy. And your time will come. I'm convinced of that. There's no need to rush."

He said your time the way people did when they meant your death. Percy didn't know if Chiron meant it that way, but the look in his eyes made him too scared to ask.

Percy stood at the saltwater spring, rubbing Chiron's coin in his hand and trying to figure out what to say to his mother. He really wasn't in the mood to have one more adult tell him that doing nothing was the greatest thing he could do, but he knew his mother deserved to know what was going on.

Finally, Percy took a deep breath and threw in the coin. "O goddess, accept my offering."

The mist shimmered. The light from the bathroom was just enough to make a faint rainbow.

"Show me Sally Jackson," he said. "Upper East Side, Manhattan."

And there in the mist was a scene he did not expect. His mother, sitting at the kitchen table with a man he'd never seen before. They were both laughing hysterically. There was a big stack of textbooks between them. The man looked to be thirty-something, with longish salt-and-pepper hair and a brown jacket over a black T-shirt. Vaguely, Percy was reminded of an actor- the man looked like someone who would play an undercover cop on TV.

Percy was too stunned to say anything, and fortunately, his mother and the unknown man were too busy laughing to notice his Iris-message.

The man said, "Sally, you're a riot. You want some more wine?"

"Ah, I shouldn't. You go ahead if you want."

"Actually, I'd better use your bathroom. May I?"

"Down the hall," she said, trying not to laugh.

He smiled, got up, and left.

"Mom!" Percy exclaimed.

She jumped so hard she almost knocked her textbooks off the table. Finally, she focused on her son. "Percy! Oh, honey! Is everything okay?"

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

She blinked. "Homework." Then she seemed to understand the look on his face. "Oh, honey, that's just Paul- um, Mr. Blofis. He's in my writing seminar."

"Mr. Blowfish?"

"Blofis. He'll be back in a minute, Percy. Tell me what's wrong."

She always knows when something's wrong, Percy mused. And so he told her about Annabeth. The other details, too, but it mainly boiled down to Annabeth.

By the time he was done, her eyes had teared up. Percy knew she was trying to control her emotions for his sake. "Oh, Percy..."

He nodded miserably. "Yeah. So they tell me there's nothing I can do. I guess I'll be coming home."

She turned her pencil around in her fingers. "Percy, as much as I want you to come home..." She sighed like she was mad at herself. "As much as I want you to be safe, I want you to understand something. You need to do whatever you think you have to."

He stared at her, his face blank with confusion. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, do you really, deep down, believe that you have to help save her? Do you think it's the right thing to do? Because I know one thing about you, Percy. Your heart is always in the right place. Listen to it."

"You're… you're telling me to go?"

His mother pursed her lips. "I'm telling you that… you're getting too old for me to tell you what to do. I'm telling you that I'll support you, even if what you decide to do is dangerous. I can't believe I'm saying this."


The toilet flushed down the hall in the apartment.

"I don't have much time," she said. "Percy, whatever you decide, I love you. And I know you'll do what's best for Annabeth."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because she'd do the same for you."

And with that, Sally waved her hand over the mist, and the connection dissolved, leaving her son with one final image of her new friend, Mr. Blowfish, smiling down at her.

Percy didn't remember falling asleep, but he remembered the dream.

He was back in that barren cave, the ceiling heavy and low above him. Annabeth was kneeling under the weight of a dark mass that looked like a pile of boulders. She was too tired even to cry out. Her legs trembled. Any second, Percy knew she would run out of strength and the cavern ceiling would collapse on top of her.

"How is our mortal guest?" a male voice boomed.

It wasn't Kronos. Kronos's voice was raspy and metallic like a knife being scraped across stone. He'd heard it taunting him many times before in his dreams. But this voice was deeper and lower, like a bass guitar. Its force made the ground vibrate.

Luke emerged from the shadows. He ran to Annabeth, knelt beside her, then looked back at the unseen man. "She's fading. We must hurry."

The hypocrite. Like he really cares what happens to her, Percy thought angrily.

The deep voice chuckled. It belonged to someone in the shadows, at the edge of the dream. Then a meaty hand thrust someone forward into the light- Artemis- her hands and feet bound in celestial bronze chains.

Percy gasped. Her silvery dress was torn and tattered. Her face and arms were cut in several places, and she was bleeding ichor, the golden blood of the gods.

"You heard the boy," said the man in the shadows. "Decide!"

Artemis's eyes flashed with anger. Percy didn't know why she didn't just will the chains to burst or make herself disappear, but she didn't seem to be able to. Maybe the chains prevented her, or some magic about that dark, horrible place.

The goddess looked at Annabeth and her expression changed to concern and outrage. "How dare you torture a maiden like this!"

"She will die soon," Luke said. "You can save her."

Annabeth made a weak sound of protest. Percy felt his heart wrench like it was being twisted into a knot- or more accurately, clawed at. He wanted to run to her but found that his legs wouldn't work.

"Free my hands," Artemis said.

Luke brought out his sword, Backbiter. With one expert strike, he broke the goddess's handcuffs.

Artemis ran to Annabeth and took the burden from her shoulders. Annabeth collapsed on the ground and lay there, shivering. Artemis staggered, trying to support the weight of the black rocks.

The man in the shadows chuckled. "You are as predictable as you were easy to beat, Artemis."

"You surprised me," the goddess said, straining under her burden. "It will not happen again."

"Indeed it will not," the man said. "Now you are out of the way for good! I knew you could not resist helping a young maiden. That is, after all, your specialty, my dear."

Artemis groaned. "You know nothing of mercy, you swine," she spat, her words strained and thin due to her burden, but filled with anger.

"On that," the man said, "we can agree. Luke, you may kill the girl now."

"No!'" Artemis shouted.

Luke hesitated. "She- she may yet be useful, sir. Further bait."

"Bah! You truly believe that?"

"Yes, General. They will come for her. I'm sure."

The man considered. "Then the dracaenae can guard her here. Assuming she does not die from her injuries, you may keep her alive until the winter solstice. After that, if our sacrifice goes as planned, her life will be meaningless. The lives of all mortals will be meaningless."

Luke gathered up Annabeth's listless body and carried her away from the goddess.

"You will never find the monster you seek," Artemis said. "Your plan will fail."

"How little you know, my young goddess," the man in the shadows said. "Even now, your darling attendants begin their quest to find you. They shall play directly into my hands. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a long journey to make. We must greet your Hunters and make sure their quest is… challenging."

The man's laughter echoed in the darkness, shaking the ground until it seemed the whole cavern ceiling would collapse.

Percy woke with a start. He sat up and looked around wildly, sure he'd heard a loud banging. It was dark outside. The salt spring still gurgled. No other sounds but the hoot of an owl in the woods and the distant surf on the beach. In the moonlight, on his nightstand, was Annabeth's New York Yankees cap. He stared at it for a second, numb with lingering panic. Then-


Someone, or something, was pounding on his door, Percy knew. He grabbed Riptide and got out of bed.

"Hello?" he called out. THUMP. THUMP. He crept to the door.

Percy uncapped the blade, flung open the door, and found himself face-to-face with a black pegasus.

Whoa, boss! Its voice spoke in his mind as it clopped away from the sword blade. I don't wanna be a horse-kebob! Its black wings spread in alarm, and the wind buffeted him back a step.

"Blackjack," Percy said, relieved but a little irritated. "It's the middle of the night!"

Blackjack huffed. Ain't either, boss. It's five in the morning. What you still sleeping for?

"How many times have I told you? Don't call me boss."

Whatever you say, boss. You're the man. You're my number one. Percy rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and tried not to let the pegasus read his thoughts. That was something that came with being a son of Poseidon- since his father had created horses out of sea foam, he could understand and talk to them. And sometimes, like in Blackjack's case, they grew attached to him.

Blackjack had been a prisoner on Luke's boat the previous summer until he, Annabeth, and Tyson had caused a distraction, allowing the pegasus to escape. And even though he'd had very little to do with it, Blackjack credited Percy with saving him.

"Blackjack," he said, "you're supposed to stay in the stables."

Meh, the stables. You see Chiron staying in the stables?

"Well… no."

Exactly. Listen, we got another little sea friend that needs your help.


Yeah. I told the hippocampi I'd come and get you.

Percy groaned. Anytime he was anywhere near the beach, the hippocampi would ask Percy to help them with their problems. And they had a lot of problems. Beached whales, porpoises caught in fishing nets, mermaids with hangnails- they'd call him to come underwater and help.

"All right," he said. "I'm coming."

You're the best, boss.

"And don't call me boss!"

Blackjack whinnied softly. It might've been a laugh.

Percy looked back at his bed. His bronze shield still hung on the wall, dented and unusable. And on the nightstand was Annabeth's magic Yankees cap. On an impulse, he stuck the cap in his pocket. He had a feeling, even then, that he wasn't coming back to the cabin for a long, long time.


The baby cow serpent crooned happily, nuzzling Percy's hand and blinking up at him with big brown eyes.

"Yeah," he said. "That's okay. Nice cow. Well… stay out of trouble."

That reminded Percy how long he'd been underwater- an hour, at least. He had to get back to his cabin before Argus or the harpies discovered he was breaking curfew.

He shot to the surface and broke through. Immediately, Blackjack zoomed down, let him catch hold of his neck. He lifted Percy into the air and took him back toward the shore.

Success, boss?

"Yeah. We rescued a baby...something or other. Took forever. Almost got stampeded."

Good deeds are always dangerous, boss. You saved my sorry mane, didn't you?

Percy couldn't help thinking about his dream, with Annabeth crumpled and lifeless in Luke's arms. Here I am rescuing baby monsters, but I can't save my friend, he thought to himself, his heart growing heavier.

As Blackjack flew back toward the cabin, Percy happened to glance at the dining pavilion. He caught sight of a figure- a boy hunkered down behind a Greek column like he was hiding from someone.

It was Nico, but it wasn't even dawn yet. Nowhere near time for breakfast. What is he doing up there? Percy wondered.

For a moment, he hesitated. The last thing Percy wanted was more time for Nico to talk about his Mythomagic game. But something was wrong- he could tell by the way he was crouching.

"Blackjack," Percy said, "set me down over there, will you? Behind that column."

He almost messed up completely.

Percy crept up the steps behind Nico. He didn't notice Percy at all. He was behind a column, peeking around the corner, all his attention focused on the dining area. Percy was five feet away from him, and was about to say What are you doing? really loudly, when it occurred to him that Nico was doing what Grover had done: he was spying on the Hunters.

There were voices- two girls talking at one of the dining tables. Percy, in turn, took Annabeth's magic cap out of his pocket and put it on.

He didn't feel any different, but when he raised his arms, he couldn't see them. Percy was invisible.

He crept up to Nico and sneaked around him. Percy couldn't see the girls very well in the dark but knew their voices: Zoe and Bianca. It sounded like they were arguing.

"It cannot be cured," Zoe was saying. "Not quickly, at any rate."

"But how did it happen?" Bianca asked.

"A foolish prank," Zoe growled. "Those Stoll boys from the Hermes cabin. Centaur blood is like acid. Everyone knows that. They sprayed the inside of that T-shirt with it."

"That's terrible!"

"She will live," Zoe said. "But she'll be bedridden for weeks with horrible hives. There is no way she can go. It's up to me… and thee."

"But the prophecy," Bianca said. "If Phoebe can't go, we only have five. We'll have to pick another."

"There is no time," Zoe said. "We must leave at first light. That means immediately. Besides, the prophecy said we would lose one."

"In the land without rain," Bianca said, "but that can't be here."

"It might be," Zoe said, though it sounded like she was trying to convince herself. "The camp has magic borders. Nothing, not even weather, is allowed in without permission. It could be a land without rain."


"Bianca, hear me." Zoe's voice was strained. "I...I can't explain, but I have a sense that we should not pick someone else. It would be too dangerous. They would meet an end worse than Phoebe's. I don't want Chiron choosing a camper as our sixth companion. And...I don't want to risk another Hunter."

Bianca was silent. "You should tell Thalia the rest of your dream."

"No. It would not help."

"But if your suspicions are correct, about the General-"

"I have thy word not to talk about that," Zoe said. She sounded anguished. "We will find out soon enough. Now come. Dawn is breaking."

Nico scooted out of their way. He was faster than Percy.

As the girls sprinted down the steps, Zoe almost ran into him. She froze, her eyes narrowing. Her hand crept toward her bow, but then Bianca said, "The lights of the Big House are on. Hurry!"

And Zoe followed her out of the pavilion.

Percy knew what Nico was thinking. Nico took a deep breath and was about to run after his sister when Percy took off the invisibility cap and said, "Wait."

He almost slipped on the icy steps as he spun around to find Percy. "Where did you come from?"

"I've been here the whole time. Invisible."

Nico mouthed the word invisible. "Wow. Cool."

"How did you know Zoe and your sister were here?" Percy questioned.

He blushed. "I heard them walk by the Hermes cabin. I don't… I don't sleep too well at camp. So I heard footsteps, and them whispering. And so I kind of followed."

"And now you're thinking about following them on the quest," he guessed.

"How did you know that?"

"Because if it was my sister, I'd probably be thinking the same thing. But you can't."

Nico looked defiant. "Because I'm too young?"

"Because they won't let you. They'll catch you and send you back here. And...yeah, because you're too young. You remember the manticore? There will be lots more like that. More dangerous. Some of the heroes will die."

Suddenly a new voice cut in. "He's right, you know."

Percy and Nico both jumped, startled, as the Doctor came over to them, bent down so that he was at Nico's level. "I saw you a while ago, Nico," he said, giving them both a small smile. "And Percy has a point. You're too young, and it's too dangerous for someone who has no experience with this sort of thing."

"Maybe he's right," Nico replied, shuffling from foot to foot. "But, but you can go for me," he said, looking at Percy.


"You can turn invisible. You can go!"

"The Hunters don't like boys," Percy reminded him. "If they find out-"

"Don't let them find out. Follow them invisibly. Keep an eye on my sister! You have to. Please?"


"You're planning to go anyway, aren't you?"

As Nico asked that question, the Doctor gave him a meaningful look. Percy was about to say no, but with both of them looking him in the eye, he found that he couldn't lie to either of them.

"Yeah," he said, after a pause. "I have to find Annabeth. I have to help, even if they don't want me to." He knew to admit that in front of the Doctor might be a problem, but before he could say anything in his defense, the Doctor beat him to it.

"I understand," he murmured. "If you do follow us, I won't say a word."

Now that surprised Percy. He'd never expected another adult to be on his side. "R-Really? Why? The Hunters said-"

"-It's not about what the Hunters said," the Doctor replied, cutting him off. "It's about what's right. I may not like it- I don't like the fact that any children are doing something this dangerous, to be honest- but if you really feel that you have to save Annabeth, well...I can understand that."

Percy was too surprised to speak. All he could think about was why the Doctor understood how he felt. All the other adults- save for his mother- thought that doing nothing was the best thing he could do.

The Doctor must have known what Percy was thinking, for he sighed and said softly, "I lost someone like Annabeth once. Had to watch her disappear, too. Only...that time, there were so many things that prevented me from finding her and bringing her back...I only ever saw her again once. But if I'd had to do something as dangerous as this, knowing I'd be able to rescue her...I would've. I understand how you feel, because...I've felt that way. I won't stop you from doing what I wish I could've done."

Then he rose to his feet. "We'd better get a move on," he said, smiling. "Before the Hunters wonder where I've gone off to."

"I won't tell on you," Nico said suddenly. "But you have to promise to keep my sister safe."

Percy froze."I...that's a big thing to promise, Nico, on a trip like this. Besides, she's got the Doctor, Zoe, Grover, and Thalia-"

"Promise," he insisted.

"I'll do my best. I promise that."

The Doctor nodded in agreement. "As do I, Nico di Angelo. As do I."

Chapter Text

"Get going, then!" Nico all but shoved Percy and the Doctor away. "Good luck!"

This is crazy, Percy thought. He wasn't packed. He had nothing but the cap and the sword and the clothes he was wearing. And he was supposed to be going home to Manhattan that morning. "Tell Chiron-"

"I'll make something up." Nico smiled crookedly. "I'm good at that. Go on!" Percy and the Doctor shared a look and nodded. Percy went one way; the Doctor went the other.

He ran, putting on Annabeth's cap. As the sun came up, he turned invisible. Percy hit the top of Half-Blood Hill in time to see the camp's van disappearing down the farm road, probably Argus taking the quest group into the city. After that, they would be on their own.

Percy felt a twinge of guilt, and stupidity, too. How was he supposed to keep up with them? Run?

Then he heard the beating of huge wings. Blackjack landed next to him. He began casually nuzzling a few tufts of grass that stuck through the ice.

If I was guessing, boss, I'd say you need a getaway horse. You interested?

A lump of gratitude stuck in Percy's throat, but he managed to say, "Yeah. Let's fly."

Percy had a rather difficult time following the van- one of the disadvantages of flying on a pegasus during the daytime is that if he wasn't not careful, he would probably cause a serious traffic accident on the Long Island Expressway.
Percy had to keep Blackjack up in the clouds, which were, fortunately, low in the winter. They darted around, trying to keep the white Camp Half-Blood van in sight. And if it was cold on the ground, it was much, much, colder in the air, with icy rain stinging Percy's skin.

Percy lost the van twice, but since he had a pretty good sense that they would go into Manhattan first, it wasn't too difficult to pick up their trail again.

Traffic was bad, what with the holidays and all. It was midmorning before they got into the city. Percy landed Blackjack near the top of the Chrysler Building and watched the white camp van, thinking it would pull into the bus station, but it kept driving.

"Where's Argus taking them?" he muttered.

Oh, Argus ain't driving, boss, Blackjack told him. The Doc is.

Percy raised an eyebrow. "Well, I guess they wouldn't need Argus, since there's an adult on this quest."

That's probably true.

"What I don't understand is why he's driving so fast we can barely keep up. He knows we're following him."

Who knows? Mortals are weird. Hey, look! There's a donut shop. Can we get something to go?

Percy tried explaining to Blackjack that taking a flying horse to a donut shop would give every cop in there a heart attack, but he didn't seem to get it. Meanwhile, the van kept snaking its way toward the Lincoln Tunnel. It had never even occurred to Percy that the Doctor could drive the van instead of Argus, even though he was definitely old enough to. Then again, he wasn't used to a mortal tagging along on a quest. He wondered if the Doctor had a driver's license in case he got pulled over. After all, he was driving like a crazy person.

"Well," he said. "Let's get after them."

They were about to leap off the Chrysler Building when Blackjack whinnied in alarm and almost threw Percy. Something was curling around his leg like a snake. He reached for his sword, but when he looked down, there was no snake. Vines- grape vines- had sprouted from the cracks between the stones of the building. They were wrapping around Blackjack's legs, lashing down Percy's ankles so they couldn't move.

"Going somewhere?" Mr. D asked.

He was leaning against the building with his feet levitating in the air, his leopard-skin warm-up suit and black hair whipping around in the wind.

God alert! Blackjack yelled. It's the wine dude!

Mr. D sighed in exasperation. "The next person, or horse, who calls me the 'wine dude' will end up in a bottle of Merlot!"

"Mr. D." Percy tried to keep his voice calm as the grape vines continued to wrap around his legs. "What do you want?"

"Oh, what do I want? You thought, perhaps, that the immortal, all-powerful director of camp would not notice you leaving without permission?"

"Well… maybe."

"I should throw you off this building, minus the flying horse, and see how heroic you sound on the way down."

Percy balled his fists. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, but Mr. D was about to either kill him or haul him back to camp in shame, and he couldn't stand either idea. "Why do you hate me so much? What did I ever do to you?"

Purple flames flickered in his eyes. "You're a hero, boy. I need no other reason."

"I have to go on this quest! I've got to help my friends. That's something you wouldn't understand!"

Um, boss, Blackjack said nervously. Seeing as how we're wrapped in vines nine hundred feet in the air, you might want to talk nice.

The grape vines coiled tighter around Percy. Below him, the white van was getting farther and farther away. Soon it would be out of sight.

"Did I ever tell you about Ariadne?" Mr. D asked. "Beautiful young princess of Crete? She liked helping her friends, too. In fact, she helped a young hero named Theseus, also a son of Poseidon. She gave him a ball of magical yarn that let him find his way out of the Labyrinth. And do you know how Theseus rewarded her?"

The answer Percy wanted to give was I don't care! But he had a feeling that wouldn't make Mr. D finish his story any faster.

"They got married," he said. "Happily ever after. The end."

Mr. D sneered. "Not quite. Theseus said he would marry her. He took her aboard his ship and sailed for Athens. Halfway back, on a little island called Naxos, he… What's the word you mortals use today? …he dumped her. I found her there, you know. Alone. Heartbroken. Crying her eyes out. She had given up everything, left everything she knew behind, to help a dashing young hero who tossed her away like a broken sandal."

"That's wrong," Percy said. "But that was thousands of years ago. What's that got to do with me?"

Mr. D regarded him coldly. "I fell in love with Ariadne, boy. I healed her broken heart. And when she died, I made her my immortal wife on Olympus. She waits for me even now. I shall go back to her when I am done with this infernal century of punishment at your ridiculous camp."

Percy stared at him in disbelief. "You're… you're married? But I thought you got in trouble for chasing a wood nymph-"

"-My point is, you heroes never change. You accuse us gods of being vain, yet, you should look at yourselves. You take what you want, use whoever you must, and then you betray everyone around you. So, you'll excuse me if I have no love for heroes. They are a selfish, ungrateful lot. Ask Ariadne. Or Medea. For that matter, ask Zoe Nightshade."

"What do you mean, ask Zoe?"

He waved his hand dismissively. "Go. Follow your silly friends."

The vines uncurled around Percy's legs.
He blinked in disbelief. "You're…you're letting me go? Just like that?"

"The prophecy says at least two of you will die. Perhaps I'll get lucky and you'll be one of them. You and that impudent mortal, the Doctor…" Dionysus spat his name. "I'd kill him myself, but Ariadne is…rather fond of him. And mark my words, Son of Poseidon, live or die, you and he will prove no better than the other heroes."

With that, Dionysus snapped his fingers. His image folded up like a paper display. There was a pop and he was gone, leaving a faint scent of grapes that was quickly blown away by the wind.

Too close, Blackjack said.

Percy nodded, though he almost would have been less worried if Mr. D had hauled him back to camp. The fact that he'd let Percy go meant he really believed that they stood a fair chance of dying and never coming back from this quest.

"Come on, Blackjack," he said, trying to sound upbeat. "I'll buy you some donuts in New Jersey."

As it turned out, he didn't get the chance to buy Blackjack donuts in New Jersey. The Doctor drove south relentlessly, and they were into Maryland before he finally pulled over at a rest stop. Blackjack practically tumbled out of the sky, he was so tired.

I'll be okay, boss, he panted. Just… just catching my breath.

"Stay here," Percy told him. "I'm going to scout."

'Stay here' I can handle. I can do that.

He put on the cap of invisibility and walked over to the convenience store. It was difficult for him not to sneak. Percy had to keep reminding himself that nobody could see him. It was hard, too, because he had to remember to get out of the way, so people wouldn't slam into him.

He thought he would go inside and warm up, maybe get a cup of hot chocolate or something. He had a little change in his pocket that he could leave on the counter. Percy was wondering if the cup would turn invisible when he picked it up, or if he'd have to deal with a floating hot chocolate problem when the whole plan was ruined by Zoe, Thalia, Bianca, the Doctor, and Grover all coming out of the store.

"Grover, are you sure?" Thalia said.

"Well… pretty sure. Ninety-nine percent. Okay, eighty-five percent."

"And you did this with acorns?" Bianca asked, like she couldn't believe it.

Grover looked offended. "It's a time-honored tracking spell. I mean, I'm pretty sure I did it right."

"D.C. is about sixty miles from here," Bianca said. "Nico and I…" She frowned. "We used to live there. That's… that's strange. I'd forgotten." The Doctor gave her an odd look at that. Percy could practically hear his brain working from there.

"I dislike this," Zoe said. "We should go straight west. The prophecy said west."

"Oh, like your tracking skills are better?" Thalia growled.

Zoe stepped toward her. "You challenge my skills, you scullion? You know nothing of being a Hunter!"

"Oh, scullion. You're calling me a scullion? What the heck is a scullion?"

"Whoa, you two," Grover said nervously. "Come on. Not again!" The Doctor nodded in agreement. "Yes, this is dangerous enough. Stop trying to kill each other, please?"

"Grover's right," Bianca added. "D.C. is our best bet."

Zoe didn't look convinced, but she nodded reluctantly. "Very well. Let us keep moving."

Then Thalia whirled on the Doctor. "You know, you're going to get us arrested, what with the way you've been driving. Let me drive. I look close enough to sixteen, anyway."

"Sorry, Thalia," the Doctor replied, smirking, "but I'm afraid I have to drive. Besides, I've gotten you this far, haven't I? We'll be fine."

"I have been driving since automobiles were invented," Zoe cut in. "Perhaps I should-"

"-Oh, no. No, you don't. You're worried about getting arrested? Well, if there's one thing that's guaranteed to get us locked up, it's letting a fourteen-year-old girl drive a van. I know you're older than you look, Zoe, we have that in common. But an officer wouldn't know that, hm?" He tilted his head, smiled slightly at her. She groaned and, rolling her eyes, stormed off.

The Doctor raised an eyebrow as she stomped back into the van and slammed the door. He turned to Bianca. "Any idea why she hates me so much?"

Bianca shrugged. "You're a guy. I think that's a good enough reason, in her mind. But, uh, if it helps…" she paused, smiled a little. "I don't hate you. You're nice."

Thalia smirked. "Well, at least they haven't totally gotten to your head yet. Fair warning, though, Bianca. He might be a nice enough guy, but if his driving skills weren't enough of an indicator, he is a complete maniac. He's insane."

The Doctor chuckled. "I want to say you're wrong, but…" He shrugged. "I suppose you have a point."

"Relax, pretty boy; I still love you," she teased, lightly punching him on the arm. "It's why I'm honest with you." He grinned in turn. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Honesty is the best policy, after all." Thalia shrugged, smiled at him. "Come on, Doc, we're losing daylight."

"Oi, you know I hate being called that."

As Percy kept following them, he wondered if Zoe had been kidding about driving since cars were invented. He wasn't sure when they were invented, but he knew it was a long time ago. Just how old was Zoe? And what had the Doctor meant when he said they were both older than they looked?

As they got closer to Washington, Blackjack started slowing down and dropping altitude. He was breathing heavily.

"You okay?" Percy asked him.

Fine, boss. I could… I could take on an army.

"You don't sound so good." And suddenly he felt guilty because he'd been running the pegasus for half a day, nonstop, trying to keep up with highway traffic. Even for a flying horse, that had to be rough.

Don't worry about me, boss! I'm a tough one.

Percy figured he was right, but he also figured Blackjack would run himself into the ground before he complained, and he didn't want that.

Fortunately, the van started to slow down. It crossed the Potomac River into central Washington. Percy started thinking about air patrols and missiles and things like that. He didn't know exactly how all those defenses worked and wasn't sure if pegasi even showed up on a military radar, but he didn't want to find out by getting shot out of the sky.

"Set me down there," Percy told Blackjack. "That's close enough."

Blackjack was so tired he didn't complain. He dropped toward the Washington Monument and set him on the grass.

The van was only a few blocks away. Zoe had parked at the curb.

Percy looked at Blackjack. "I want you to go back to camp. Get some rest. Graze. I'll be fine."

Blackjack cocked his head skeptically. You sure, boss?

"You've done enough already," he replied. "I'll be fine. And thanks a ton."

A ton of hay, maybe, Blackjack mused. That sounds good. All right, but be careful, boss. I got a feeling they didn't come here to meet anything friendly and handsome like me.

He promised to be careful. Then Blackjack took off, circling twice around the monument before disappearing into the clouds.

Percy looked over at the white van. Everyone was getting out. Grover pointed toward one of the big buildings lining the Mall. Thalia and the Doctor nodded, and the five of them trudged off into the cold wind.

Percy started to follow, but then he froze.

A block away, the door of a black sedan opened. A man with gray hair and a military buzz cut got out. He was wearing dark shades and a black overcoat. Percy thought nothing of it, until it dawned on him that he'd seen that same car a couple of times on the highway, going south. It had been following the van.

The man took out his mobile phone and said something into it. Then he looked around, like he was making sure the coast was clear, and started walking down the Mall in the direction of Percy's friends.

The worst of it was, when the stranger turned toward Percy, he recognized the man's face. It was Dr. Thorn, the manticore from Westover Hall.

Chapter Text

Percy followed Thorn from a distance, his heart pounding. As he walked, Percy realized something. If Thorn had survived falling off that cliff, then that meant Annabeth had, too. His dreams had been right- she was alive and being held as a prisoner. Thorn kept well back from Percy's friends, careful not to be seen.

Finally, Grover stopped in front of a big building that said NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM. The Smithsonian. Percy had visited years ago with his mother, but everything looked bigger then.

Thalia checked the door. It was open, but there weren't many people going in. It was too cold, and school was out of session. They slipped inside.

Dr. Thorn hesitated. Percy wasn't sure why, but he didn't go into the museum. He turned and headed across the Mall. Percy made a split-second decision and followed him.

Thorn crossed the street and climbed the steps of the Museum of Natural History. There was a big sign on the door. At first, due to his dyslexia, Percy thought it said CLOSED FOR PIRATE EVENT. Then he realized PIRATE must have been PRIVATE.

He followed Dr. Thorn inside, through a huge chamber full of mastodons and dinosaur skeletons. There were voices up ahead, coming from behind a set of closed doors. Two guards stood outside. They opened the doors for Thorn, and Percy had to sprint to get inside before they closed them again.

Inside, what he saw was so terrible that he almost gasped aloud, which probably would've gotten him killed.

Percy was in a huge round room with a balcony ringing the second level. At least a dozen mortal guards stood on the balcony, plus two monsters- reptilian women with double-snake trunks instead of legs. With a jolt, Percy realized he'd seen them before. Annabeth had called them Scythian dracaenae.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Standing between the snake women, almost looking straight down at Percy, was his old enemy Luke. He looked terrible- his skin was pale, and his blond hair looked almost gray, as if he'd aged ten years in just a few months. The angry light in his eyes was still there, though, and so was the scar down the side of his face, where a dragon had once scratched him. But the scar was now an ugly red, as if it had recently been reopened.

Next to him, sitting down so that the shadows covered him, was another man. All Percy could see were his knuckles on the gilded arms of his chair, like a throne.

"Well?" asked the man in the chair. His voice was just like the one Percy had heard in his dream- not as creepy as Kronos', but deeper and stronger, like the earth itself was talking. It filled the whole room even though he wasn't yelling.

Dr. Thorn took off his sunglasses. His two-colored eyes, brown and blue, glittered with excitement. He made a stiff bow, then spoke in his odd French accent: "They are here, General."

"I know that, you fool," boomed the man. "But where?"

"In the rocket museum."

"The Air and Space Museum," Luke corrected irritably.

Dr. Thorn glared at Luke. "As you say, sir." The venom in his voice indicated to Percy that Dr. Thorn would just as soon impale Luke with one of his spikes as call him sir.

"How many?" Luke asked.

Thorn pretended not to hear.

"How many?" the General demanded.

"Five, General," Thorn said. "The satyr, Grover Underwood. And the girl with the spiky black hair and the- how do you say- punk clothes and the horrible shield."

"Thalia," Luke said.

"And two other girls- Hunters. One wears a silver circlet."

"That one I know," the General growled. There was a pause, and everyone in the room shifted uncomfortably. Then the General spoke again. "And the fifth?"

"I believe the fifth is a… mortal, General. A man."

Luke pricked his ears in interest. "Describe him."

"Young," Thorn replied. "He speaks with an English accent, I believe. And-"

Luke suddenly cut Thorn off. "Does he wear a suit? With suspenders and a bow tie?"

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

When Luke answered, his voice was low and dangerous. "Answer the question."

"Yes, sir," Thorn replied. "He wears the clothes you described."

"I knew it," Luke growled. Then he faced the General. "General, I know the mortal Thorn saw. A long time ago, he was my friend. Now he is my enemy. He calls himself the Doctor."

The General let out a low growl. "He is impudent, then. Giving himself a title."

"Let me take them," Luke interjected. "We have more than enough-"

"Patience," the General said. "They'll have their hands full already. I've sent a little… playmate… to keep them occupied."


"We cannot risk you, my boy."

"Yes, boy," Dr. Thorn said with a cruel smile. "You are much too fragile to risk. Let me finish them off."

"No." The General rose from his chair, and Percy got his first look at him.

He was tall and muscular, with light brown skin and slicked-back dark hair. He wore an expensive brown silk suit like a Wall Street broker, but it was obvious he wasn't one. He had a brutal face, huge shoulders, and hands that could easily snap a flagpole in half. His eyes were like stone. Percy felt as if he was looking at a living statue. It was amazing he could even move.

"You have already failed me, Thorn," he said.

"But, General-"

"No excuses!"

Thorn flinched. Percy had thought Thorn was scary when he first saw him in his black uniform at the military academy. But seeing him now, standing before the General, Thorn looked like a toy soldier. The General was the one with the real power. He didn't need a uniform to look intimidating- he was a born commander.

"I should throw you into the pits of Tartarus for your incompetence," the General snarled. "I send you to capture a child of the three elder gods, and you bring me a scrawny daughter of Athena."

"But you promised me revenge.'" Thorn protested. "A command of my own!"

"I am Lord Kronos's senior commander," the General said. "And I will choose lieutenants who get me results! It was only thanks to Luke that we salvaged our plan at all. Now get out of my sight, Thorn, until I find some other menial task for you."

Thorn's face turned purple with rage. Percy half-expected him to start foaming at the mouth or shooting spines, but he just bowed awkwardly and left the room.

"Now, my boy." The General turned to Luke. "The first thing we must do is isolate the half-blood Thalia. The monster we seek will then come to her."

"The Hunters- and even the Doctor- will be difficult to dispose of," Luke said. "Zoe Nightshade-"

"Do not speak her name!"

Luke swallowed. "S-sorry, General. I just-"

The General silenced him with a wave of his hand. "Let me show you, my boy, how we will bring the Hunters and the pitiful mortal down."

He pointed to a guard on the ground level. "Do you have the teeth?"

The man stumbled forward with a ceramic pot. "Yes, General!"

"Plant them," he said.

In the center of the room was a big circle of dirt, where a dinosaur exhibit was probably supposed to go. Percy watched with bated breath as the guard took sharp white teeth out of the pot and pushed them into the soil. He smoothed them over while the General smiled coldly.

The guard stepped back from the dirt and wiped his hands. "Ready, General!"

"Excellent! Water them, and we will let them scent their prey."

The guard picked up a tin watering can, which was somewhat strange, because what he poured out wasn't water. A dark red liquid flowed out from the watering can and onto the soil. Percy hoped it was fruit punch, but figured it was something much worse.

The soil began to bubble.

"Soon," the General said, "I will show you, Luke, soldiers that will make your army from that little boat look insignificant."

Luke clenched his fists. "I've spent a year training my forces! When the Princess Andromeda arrives at the mountain, they'll be the best-"

"Ha.'" the General said. "I don't deny your troops will make a fine honor guard for Lord Kronos. And you, of course, will have a role to play-"

When the General said that, Percy could've sworn Luke turned even paler.

"-but under my leadership, the forces of Lord Kronos will increase a hundredfold. We will be unstoppable. Behold, my ultimate killing machines."

The soil erupted. Percy stepped back nervously.

In each spot where a tooth had been planted, a creature was struggling out of the dirt. The first of them said:


It was a kitten- a little orange tabby with stripes like a tiger. Then another appeared, until there were a dozen, rolling around and playing in the dirt.

Everyone stared at them in disbelief. The General roared, "What is this? Kittens? Where did you find those teeth, imbecile?!"

The guard who'd brought the teeth cowered in fear. "From the exhibit, sir! Just like you said. The saber-toothed tiger-"

"No, you idiot! I said the tyrannosaurus! Gather up those… those infernal fuzzy little beasts and take them outside. And never let me see your face again."

The terrified guard dropped his watering can. He gathered up the kittens and scampered out of the room.

"You.'" The General pointed to another guard. "Get me the right teeth. NOW!"

The new guard ran off to carry out his orders.

"Imbeciles," muttered the General.

"This is why I don't use mortals," Luke said. "They are unreliable."

"They are weak-minded, easily bought, and violent," the General said. "I love them."

A minute later, the guard hustled into the room with his hands full of large pointy teeth.

"Excellent," the General said. He climbed onto the balcony railing and jumped down twenty feet.

Where he landed, the marble floor cracked under his leather shoes. He stood, wincing, and rubbed his shoulders. "Curse my stiff neck."

A guard nervously asked if he needed anything, and the General snapped at him. "No! It will pass." The General brushed off his silk suit, then snatched up the teeth. "I shall do this myself."

He held up one of the teeth and smiled. "Dinosaur teeth- ha! Those foolish mortals don't even know when they have dragon teeth in their possession. And not just any dragon teeth. These come from the ancient Sybaris herself! They shall do nicely."

He planted them in the dirt, twelve in all. Then he scooped up the watering can. He sprinkled the soil with red liquid, tossed the can away, and held his arms out wide. Rise!

The dirt trembled. A single, skeletal hand shot out of the ground, grasping at the air.

The General looked up at the balcony. "Quickly, do you have the scent?"

"Yesssss, lord," one of the snake women said. She took out a sash of silvery fabric, like the kind the Hunters wore.

"Excellent," the General said. "Once my warriors catch its scent, they will pursue its owner relentlessly. Nothing can stop them, no weapons known to half-blood or Hunter. They will tear the Hunters and their allies to shreds. Toss it here!"

As he said that, skeletons erupted from the ground. There were twelve of them, one for each tooth the General had planted. They were nothing like Halloween skeletons, or the kind from a bad horror film. These were growing flesh as Percy watched, turning into men, but men with dull gray skin, yellow eyes, and modern clothes- gray muscle shirts, camo pants, and combat boots. If he didn't look too closely, Percy could almost believe they were human, but their flesh was transparent, and their bones shimmered underneath, like X-ray images.

One of them looked straight at Percy, regarding him coldly, and at that moment, he knew that no cap of invisibility would fool it.

The dracaena released the scarf and it fluttered down toward the General's hand. As soon as he gave it to the warriors, they would hunt Zoe and the others until they were extinct.

Percy didn't have time to think. he ran and jumped with all his might, plowing into the warriors and snatching the scarf out of the air.

"What's this?" bellowed the General.

Percy landed at the feet of a skeleton warrior, who hissed.

"An intruder," the General growled. "One cloaked in darkness. Seal the doors!"

"It's Percy Jackson!" Luke yelled. "It has to be."

Percy sprinted for the exit but heard a ripping sound and realized the skeleton warrior had taken a chunk out of his sleeve. When he glanced back, the skeleton was holding the fabric up to his nose, sniffing the scent, handing it around to his friends. Percy wanted to scream but couldn't. He squeezed through the door just as the guards slammed it shut behind him.

And then he ran.

Chapter Text

Percy tore across the Mall, not daring to look behind him. He burst into the Air and Space Museum and took off the invisibility cap once he was through the admissions area.

The main part of the museum was one large room with rockets and airplanes hanging from the ceiling. Three levels of balconies curled around, so people could look at the exhibits from all different heights. The place wasn't crowded, just a few families and a couple of tour groups of kids, probably on some sort of holiday school trip. Percy wanted to yell at them all to leave, but he had a feeling that would only get him arrested. He had to find Thalia, Grover, the Doctor, and the Hunters. Any minute, the skeleton army was going to invade the museum.

Percy ran into Thalia- literally. He was barreling up the ramp to the top-floor balcony and slammed into her, knocking her into an Apollo space capsule. Grover yelped in surprise.

Before he could regain his balance, Zoe and Bianca had arrows notched, aimed at Percy's chest. Their bows had appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

When Zoe realized who he was, she still wasn't anxious to lower her bow. "You! How dare you show thy face here?"

"Percy!" Grover said. "Thank goodness."

Zoe glared at him, and he blushed. "I mean, um, gosh. You're not supposed to be here!" The Doctor's eyes widened, though Percy knew he wasn't too surprised to see him. "Percy. Are you alright?"

"Luke," Percy gasped out, trying to catch his breath. "He's here."

The anger in Thalia's eyes immediately melted, and the shock in the Doctor's eyes grew. Thalia put her hand on her silver bracelet. "Where?"

He told them about the Natural History Museum, Dr. Thorn, Luke, and the General.

"The General is here?" Zoe looked stunned. "That is impossible! You lie."

"Why would I lie? Look, there's no time. Skeleton warriors-"

"What?" Thalia demanded. "How many?"

"Twelve," I said. "And that's not all. That guy, the General, he said he was sending something, a 'playmate,' to distract you over here. A monster."

Thalia, the Doctor, and Grover exchanged looks.

"We were following Artemis's trail," Grover said. "I was pretty sure it led here. Some powerful monster scent… She must've stopped here looking for the mystery monster. But we haven't found anything yet."

"Zoe," Bianca said nervously, "if it is the General-"

"It cannot be!" Zoe snapped. "Percy must have seen an Iris-message or some other illusion."

"Illusions don't crack marble floors," Percy told her, his voice grave. The Doctor nodded slowly in agreement. "He's right. They don't."

Zoe took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Percy had no idea why she was taking it so personally, or how she knew this General, but figured now wasn't the time to ask. "If Percy is telling the truth about the skeleton warriors," she said, "we have no time to argue. They are the worst, the most horrible… We must leave now."

"Good idea," Percy said.

"I was not including thee, boy," Zoe said. "You are not part of this quest."

"Hey, I'm trying to save your lives!"

"You shouldn't have come, Percy," Thalia said grimly. "But you're here now. Come on. Let's get back to the van."

"That is not thy decision!" Zoe snapped.

Thalia scowled at her. "You're not the boss here, Zoe. I don't care how old you are! You're still a conceited little brat!"

"You never had any wisdom when it came to boys," Zoe growled. "You never could leave them behind!"

Thalia looked like she was about to hit Zoe when the Doctor's voice cut in. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Everybody calm down for a moment. This is partly my fault. I knew he was following us- don't look at me like that, Zoe, you can yell at me later. But right now, we need to get out of here. Those creatures cannot be reasoned with, and they will hunt us down without any restraint. So, save the fighting for another time. We have to run."

Suddenly, everyone around them froze. Echoing throughout the museum was a growl so loud Percy thought one of the rocket engines was starting up.

Below them, a few adults screamed. A little kid's voice screeched with delight: "Kitty!"

Something enormous bounded up the ramp. It was the size of a pick-up truck, with silver claws and golden glittering fur. Immediately, Percy knew he'd seen the monster once before. Two years ago, he'd glimpsed it briefly from a train. Now, up close and personal, it looked even bigger.

"The Nemean Lion," Thalia murmured. "Don't move."

The Doctor turned his head to look at her, despite Thalia's order to keep still. "Um… Thalia?"

"Not now, Doctor," she snapped.

"It's important. Look, do you remember that… thing… I would do when a monster attacked when I was visiting you?"

Thalia's eyes widened. "Oh, gods no. Don't you dare."

"It might be the only way," he murmured, his voice insistent. Then he turned towards Grover, Percy, and the Hunters as the lion drew closer. It roared loudly, fangs gleaming like steel. "What I'm about to do is going to look very, very stupid, but it's worked before. Remember, the mouth is the weak spot."

Then he ran towards the lion, waving his arms back and forth. "Look at me, I'm a target!" The lion roared and charged after him.

"He's going to get himself killed!" Bianca exclaimed. Thalia sighed and shook her head. "It'll take a lot more than a giant cat to finish that idiot off. He's tough for a mortal. Now, come on! You heard him; we have to get it in the mouth."

Bianca looked at Zoe, who nodded and ordered, "Go!"

Percy uncapped Riptide and rolled to the left. Arrows whistled past him, and Grover played a sharp cadence on his reed pipes. He turned and saw Zoe and Bianca climbing the Apollo capsule. They were firing arrows, one after another, all shattering harmlessly against the lion's metallic fur. The lion swiped the capsule and tipped it on its side, spilling the Hunters off the back. Grover played a frantic, horrible tune, and the lion turned toward him, but Thalia stepped into its path, holding up Aegis, and the lion recoiled, roaring in anger. The Doctor, meanwhile, pulled something from his pocket- an odd metal cylinder- and pushed a button on it. A green light flashed at the tip, and the lion made a sound that was somewhere between a snarl and a whimper, putting its front paws over its ears.

"Hi-yah!" Thalia said. "Back!"

The lion growled and clawed the air, but it retreated as if the shield were a blazing fire.

For a second, Percy thought Thalia had it under control. Then he saw the lion crouching, its leg muscles tensing. He'd seen enough cat fights in the alleys around my apartment in New York to know what was going on. He knew the lion was going to pounce.

"Hey!" Percy yelled. He had no idea what he was thinking, but he charged the beast. He just wanted to get it away from his friends. He slashed with Riptide, a good strike to the flank that should've cut a large gash, but the blade just clanged against its fur in a burst of sparks.

The lion raked Percy with its claws, ripping off a chunk of his coat. He backed against the railing. It sprang at him, and he had no choice but to turn and jump.

Percy landed on the wing of an old-fashioned silver airplane, which pitched and almost spilled him to the floor, three stories below. He thought he heard the Doctor call out his name, but it was impossible to tell with the blood pounding in his ears.

An arrow whizzed past Percy's head. The lion jumped onto the aircraft, and the cords holding the plane began to groan.

The lion swiped at him, and he dropped onto the next exhibit, an odd-looking spacecraft with blades like a helicopter. Percy looked up and saw the lion roar- inside its maw, a pink tongue and throat. The Doctor had been right- the mouth was the weak spot.

"Zoe!" he shouted. "Shoot the mouth!"

The monster lunged. An arrow zipped past it, missing completely, and Percy dropped from the spaceship onto the top of a floor exhibit, a huge model of the earth. He slid down Russia and dropped off the equator.

The Nemean Lion growled and steadied itself on the spacecraft, but its weight was too much. One of the cords snapped. As the display swung down like a pendulum, the lion leaped off onto the model earth's North Pole.

"Grover!" Percy yelled. "Clear the area!"

Groups of kids ran around screaming. Grover and the Doctor tried to corral them away from the monster just as the other cord on the spaceship snapped and the exhibit crashed to the floor. Thalia dropped off the second-floor railing and landed across from Percy, on the other side of the globe. The lion regarded them both, trying to decide which one to kill first.

Zoe and Bianca were above them, bows ready, but they kept having to move around to get a good angle.

"No clear shot!" Zoe yelled. "Get it to open its mouth more!"

The lion snarled from the top of the globe.

Percy looked around. Options. He needed…

The gift shop. He had a vague memory from the trip he took there as a little kid. Something he made his mother buy him, and he'd regretted it. If they still sold that stuff…

"Thalia," he ordered, "keep it occupied."

She nodded grimly.

"Hi-yah!" She pointed her spear and a spidery arc of blue electricity shot out, zapping the lion in the tail.

"ROOOOOOOAR!" The lion turned and pounced. Thalia rolled out of its way, holding up Aegis to keep the monster at bay, and Percy ran for the gift shop.

"This is no time for souvenirs, boy!" Zoe yelled. Percy ignored her.

He dashed into the shop, knocking over rows of T-shirts, jumping over tables full of glow-in-the-dark planets and space ooze. The saleslady didn't protest. She was too busy cowering behind her cash register.

There, on the far wall, he spotted what he was looking for- glittery silver packets. Whole racks of them. Percy scooped up every kind he could find and ran out of the shop with an armful.

Zoe and Bianca were still showering arrows on the monster, but it was no good. The lion seemed to know better than to open its mouth too much. It snapped at Thalia, slashing with its claws. It even kept its eyes narrowed to tiny slits.

Thalia jabbed at the monster and backed up. The lion pressed her.

"Percy," she called, "whatever you're going to do-"

The lion roared and swatted her like a cat toy, sending her flying into the side of a Titan rocket. Her head hit the metal and she slid to the floor.

"Hey!" Percy yelled at the lion. He was too far away to strike, so he took a risk: he hurled Riptide like a throwing knife. It bounced off the lion's side, but that was enough to get the monster's attention. It turned toward Percy and snarled.

There was only one way to get close enough. He charged, and as the lion leaped to intercept him, Percy threw a space food pouch into its maw- a chunk of cellophane-wrapped, freeze-dried strawberry parfait.

The lion's eyes went wide, and it gagged like a cat with a hairball.

Despite the situation, Percy couldn't blame it. He remembered feeling the same way when he'd tried to eat space food as a kid. The stuff was just plain disgusting.

"Zoe, get ready!" Percy yelled.

Behind him, he could hear people screaming. Grover was playing another horrible song on his pipes. The Doctor was calling out to Thalia.

Percy scrambled away from the lion. It managed to choke down the space food packet and looked at him with pure hate.

"Snack time!" he yelled.

It made the mistake of roaring at Percy, and he got an ice-cream sandwich in its throat. Fortunately, Percy had always been a pretty good pitcher, even though he'd never really played baseball. Before the lion could stop gagging, he shot in two more flavors of ice cream and a freeze-dried spaghetti dinner.

The lion's eyes bugged. It opened its mouth wide and reared up on its back paws, trying to get away from Percy.

"Now!" he yelled.

Immediately, arrows pierced the lion's maw- two, four, six. The lion thrashed wildly, turned, and fell backward. And then it was still.

Alarms wailed throughout the museum. People were flocking to the exits. Security guards were running around in a panic with no idea what was going on.

The Doctor knelt at Thalia's side and helped her up while Grover looked on worriedly. She seemed dazed, but otherwise okay. "You're not hurt, are you, Thalia?" the Doctor murmured, and she shook her head.

Zoe and Bianca dropped from the balcony and landed next to Percy.

Zoe eyed him cautiously. "That was… an interesting strategy."

"Hey, it worked."

She didn't argue. The Doctor, in turn, grinned at Zoe. "I like that one. He's a lot like me," he said, nodding towards Percy. He couldn't help but smirk at that.

The lion seemed to be melting, the way dead monsters sometimes did, until there was nothing left but its glittering fur coat. Even that seemed to be shrinking to the size of a normal lion's pelt.

"Take it," Zoe told Percy.

He stared at her blankly. "What, the lion's fur? Isn't that, like, an animal rights violation or something?"

"It is a spoil of war," she told him. "It is rightly thine."

"You killed it," he argued.

She shook her head, almost smiling. "I think thy ice-cream sandwich did that. Fair is fair, Percy Jackson. Take the fur."

Percy lifted it up. It was surprisingly light. The fur was smooth and soft. It didn't feel at all like something that could stop a blade. As he watched, the pelt shifted and changed into a coat- a full-length golden-brown duster.

"Not exactly my style," he murmured. The Doctor, in turn, chuckled. "I used to wear a coat like that. Bit different, but…similar."

Percy smirked. "You want it?" He waved his hand dismissively and shook his head in response. "Nah."

Then Percy's eyes fell on the metal cylinder the Doctor had used to freak out the lion. It wasn't a cylinder at all, but rather some sort of tool. It almost looked like a pen, with a small bulb at the top and a tapered end. "Um… what exactly is that thing in your hand?"

Thalia answered before he could, rolling her eyes. "Oh, that's just his toy."

"Oi," he protested. "It's not a toy, Thalia. It's quite useful."

Percy nodded enthusiastically in agreement. "Yeah. You made the lion go haywire. Like a… cat whistle."

The Doctor chuckled. "I suppose that's one way of putting it. I transmitted an unpleasant sound at a pitch only it could hear. Well, I could hear it, too, but it didn't bother me so much."

"I don't believe you," Thalia shot back. "There's no way you heard it too. What are you, an alien? I don't think so."

Percy jumped back into the conversation. "What's that thing called? What does it do? Where'd you get it?" He tried to keep from talking too fast, but he was jittery and overexcited.

The Doctor stayed silent, cleared his throat. "It's called a sonic screwdriver. It has too many functions to name. And I invented it. Anything else?"

"You invented it?" he echoed. "What are you, some kind of genius or something?" In answer, the Doctor shrugged. "I suppose so."

"-We have to get out of here," Grover cut in. "The security guards won't stay confused for much longer."

Percy noticed for the first time how strange it was that the guards hadn't rushed forward to arrest any of them. They were scrambling in all directions except theirs like they were madly searching for something. A few were running into the walls or each other.

"You did that?" Percy asked Grover.

He nodded, looking a little embarrassed. "A minor confusion song. I played some Barry Manilow. It works every time. But it'll only last a few more seconds."

"The security guards are not our biggest worry," Zoe said. "Look."

Through the glass walls of the museum, they could all see a group of men walking across the lawn. Gray men in gray camouflage outfits. They were too far away for Percy to see their eyes, but he could feel their gaze aimed straight at him.

"Go," he said. "They'll be hunting me. I'll distract them."

"No," Zoe said. "We go together."

I stared at her. "But, you said-"

"You are part of this quest now," Zoe said grudgingly. "I do not like it, but there is no changing fate. You are the sixth quest member. And we are not leaving anyone behind."

Chapter Text

They were crossing the Potomac when they spotted the helicopter. It was a sleek, black military model just like the one at Westover Hall. And it was coming straight toward them.

"They know the van," Percy said. "We have to ditch it."

The Doctor swerved into the fast lane. The helicopter was gaining at an alarming rate.

"Maybe the military will shoot it down," Grover said hopefully.

"The military probably thinks it's one of theirs," Percy said. "How can the General use mortals, anyway?"

"Mercenaries," Zoe said bitterly. "It is distasteful, but many mortals will fight for any cause as long as they are paid." The Doctor nodded in agreement. "I never understood that, if it helps." Zoe didn't answer.

"But don't these mortals see who they're working for?" Percy asked. "Don't they notice all the monsters around them?"

Zoe shook her head. "I do not know how much they see through the Mist. I doubt it would matter to them if they knew the truth. Sometimes mortals can be more horrible than monsters."
Percy half-expected the Doctor to say something, but he stayed silent.

The helicopter continued gaining on them, which was easy in DC traffic.

Thalia closed her eyes and prayed. "Hey, Dad. A lightning bolt would be nice about now. Please?" But the sky stayed gray and snowy. No sign of a helpful thunderstorm.

"There!" Bianca said. "That parking lot!"

"We'll be trapped," the Doctor argued.

"Trust me," Bianca said. The Doctor took one look at her determined expression and nodded.
He shot across two lanes of traffic and into a mall parking lot on the south bank of the river. They all left the van and followed Bianca down some steps.

"Subway entrance," Bianca said. "Let's go south. Alexandria."

"Anything," Thalia agreed.

They bought tickets and went through the turnstiles, looking over their shoulders for any signs of pursuit. A few minutes later they were safely aboard a southbound train, riding away from DC As the train came above ground, the helicopter was clearly visible, circling the parking lot, but it didn't come after them.

"That was clever of you, Bianca," the Doctor murmured, grinning. "You thought quickly. Nice job."

Her eyes shone at his praise. "Yeah, well. I saw that station when Nico and I came through last summer. I remember being really surprised to see it, because it wasn't here when we used to live in DC."

The Doctor raised an eyebrow at her. "Really? But-"

Grover cut him off. "It can't be new. That station looked really old."

"I guess," Bianca said. "But trust me, when we lived here as little kids, there was no subway."

Thalia sat forward. "Wait a minute. No subway at all?"

Bianca nodded.

The Doctor's eyes widened in shock. "But, Bianca… DC's subway system was first built in 1967."

Percy spoke before she could. "Wait, what? And how do you know that?"
He shrugged.

"Bianca," the Doctor said softly. "How long ago…" His voice faltered. The sound of the helicopter was growing louder again.

"We need to change trains," Percy said. "Next station."

Over the next half hour, all they thought about was getting away safely. They changed trains twice. Percy had no idea where we were going, but after a while they lost the helicopter.

Unfortunately, when they finally got off the train they found themselves at the end of the line, in an industrial area with nothing but warehouses and railway tracks. And a lot of snow. It seemed much colder there. Percy was suddenly glad for his new lion's fur coat.

They wandered through the railway yard, thinking there might be another passenger train somewhere, but there were just rows and rows of freight cars, most of which were covered in snow, like they hadn't moved in years.

A homeless man was standing at a trash-can fire. Their group of six must've looked pretty pathetic to him, because he gave them a toothless grin and said, "Y'all need to get warmed up? Come on over!"

We huddled around his fire, Thalia's teeth were chattering. She said, "Well this is g-g-great." The Doctor gave her a look of concern and removed his tweed coat, draping it across her shoulders. She gave him a grateful smile. Then he murmured to himself, "Should have asked the…" The rest of what he said was lost on Percy.

"My hooves are frozen," Grover complained.

"Feet," Percy corrected, for the sake of the homeless man.

"Maybe we should contact camp," Bianca said. "Chiron-"

"No," Zoe said. "They cannot help us anymore. We must finish this quest ourselves."

Percy gazed miserably around the rail yard. Somewhere, far to the west, Annabeth was in danger. Artemis was in chains. A doomsday monster was on the loose. And they were stuck on the outskirts of DC, sharing a homeless person's fire.

"You know," the homeless man said, "you're never completely without friends." His face was grimy and his beard tangled, but his expression seemed kindly. "You all need a train going west?"

"Yes, sir," Percy said. "You know of any?"

He pointed one greasy hand.

Suddenly they noticed a freight train, gleaming and free of snow. It was an automobile-carrier train, with steel mesh curtains and a triple-deck of cars inside. The side of the freight train said SUN WEST LINE.

"That's… convenient," Thalia said. "Thanks, uh…"

She turned to the homeless man, but he was gone. The trash can in front of them was suddenly cold and empty, as if he'd taken the flames with him.

An hour later, they were steadily going west. There was no problem about who would drive now, because they all got whatever luxury car they wanted. Zoe and Bianca were crashed out in a Lexus on the top deck. Grover was playing race car driver behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. The Doctor was fiddling with the controls in a dark blue Ferrari, grinning and talking to himself like a maniac. And Thalia had hot-wired the radio in a black Mercedes SLK so she could pick up the alt-rock stations from DC.

"Join you?" Percy asked her.

She shrugged, so he climbed into the shotgun seat.

The radio was playing the White Stripes. Percy knew the song because it was one of the only CDs he owned that his mother liked. She said it reminded her of Led Zeppelin. Thinking about her suddenly made him feel sad, because it didn't seem likely he would be home for Christmas. He might not live that long.

"Nice coat," Thalia told Percy.

He pulled the brown duster tighter around his body, thankful for the warmth. He also didn't miss the fact that Thalia was still wearing the Doctor's jacket. "Yeah, but the Nemean Lion wasn't the monster we're looking for."

"Not even close. We've got a long way to go."

"Whatever this mystery monster is, the General said it would come for you. They wanted to isolate you from the group, so the monster will appear and battle you one-on-one."

"He said that?"

"Well, something like that. Yeah."

"That's great. I love being used as bait."

"No idea what the monster might be?"

She shook her head morosely. "But you know where we're going, don't you? San Francisco. That's where Artemis was heading."

Then Percy remembered something Annabeth had said at the dance: her father was moving to San Francisco, and there was no way she could go. Half-bloods couldn't live there.

"Why?" he asked. "What's so bad about San Francisco?"

"The Mist is really thick there because the Mountain of Despair is so near. Titan magic- what's left of it- still lingers. Monsters are attracted to that area like you wouldn't believe."

"What's the Mountain of Despair?"

Thalia raised an eyebrow. "You really don't know? Ask stupid Zoe. She's the expert."

She glared out the windshield. Percy wanted to ask her what she was talking about, but also didn't want to sound like an idiot. He hated feeling like Thalia knew more than he did, so he kept his mouth shut.

The afternoon sun shone through the steel-mesh side of the freight car, casting a shadow across Thalia's face. Percy thought about how different she was from Zoe- Zoe was formal and aloof like a princess, while Thalia dressed in ratty clothes and sported a rebel attitude. But there was something similar about them, too. The same kind of toughness. Right then, sitting in the shadows with a gloomy expression, Thalia looked a lot like one of the Hunters.

Then suddenly, a realization struck Percy like a moving car. "That's why you don't get along with Zoe."

Thalia frowned. "What?"

"The Hunters tried to recruit you," he guessed.

Her eyes got dangerously bright. For a moment, Percy thought she was going to zap him out of the Mercedes, but she just sighed. I almost joined them," she admitted. "Luke, Annabeth, and I ran into them once, and Zoe tried to convince me. She almost did, but…"


Thalia's fingers gripped the wheel. "I would've had to leave Luke."


"Zoe and I got into a fight. She told me I was being stupid. She said I'd regret my choice. She said Luke would let me down someday."

Percy watched the sun through the metal curtain. They seemed to be traveling faster each second, shadows flickering like an old movie projector.

"That's harsh," he said. "Hard to admit Zoe was right."

"She wasn't right! Luke never let me down. Never."

"We'll have to fight him," Percy said. "There's no way around it."

Thalia didn't answer.

"You haven't seen him lately," he warned. "I know it's hard to believe, but-"

"I'll do what I have to."

"Even if that means killing him?"

"Do me a favor," she said. "Get out of my car." One look at the storm raging in Thalia's eyes, and Percy felt so bad for her he didn't argue.

As he was about to leave, she said, "Percy."

When he looked back, her eyes were red, but Percy couldn't tell if it was from anger or sadness. "Annabeth wanted to join the Hunters, too. Maybe you should think about why."

Before he could respond, she raised the power windows and shut Percy out.

The Doctor knew he'd had more eventful and draining days, but this one was coming close to the top three. Despite what the Nemean Lion had tried to do to them, he still felt bad for killing the creature. And Bianca… what exactly had happened to her? Where, and more importantly, when was she from? Why was Zoe acting so strange? Was Artemis okay? Most importantly, was Annabeth still alive?

He needed to see her. Needed to see the little girl- well, she wasn't quite as small anymore- that reminded him of his humanity, who made him smile on bad days.
If he and Rose had ever gotten the chance to be together and some twist of fate had given them a daughter, he liked to think she would be a lot like Annabeth. Brilliant, beautiful, brave, and kind. Just like Rose.

But there was no use lamenting a future that would never come. Rose was gone. But there was still a chance that Annabeth could be saved. He had to believe that- for his sake, for hers, even for Rose's.

The slam of a car door broke him from his thoughts. He saw Percy standing by the passenger door of Thalia's Mercedes. He saw the window roll up, watched as Percy climbed into Grover's Lamborghini. Sighing, he got out of the car he was seated in. Instinct told him to check on Thalia.

He walked over to her Mercedes. He saw her, leaning into the steering wheel, her eyes shut tight. He knocked on the window.
Her voice echoed from inside, thick with what he knew was anger and barely restrained tears. "Go away, Jackson."

"Not Percy," he murmured in reply. "Can I come in?"

She shrugged listlessly, not looking at him. He opened the door and climbed inside.

Green Day played from the radio- he recognized the song because of Thalia all but forcing him to listen to the cassette tape she kept on the Walkman she stole from her mother before running away.

Wake me up when September ends…

Thalia sat up, pulled his coat tighter around her body. "You cold?" he asked softly. She shook her head, still silent. He laid a hand on her shoulder, knowing she didn't really want to talk all that much.
He sat with her in comfortable silence for about 30 seconds, only speaking when he saw the silent tears rolling down her face.

"Hey," he murmured. "Thalia, what's wrong? What happened?"

Finally, she spoke. "I miss Luke."

The Doctor's hearts broke for her. He knew that she and Luke were close all those years ago, but… seeing the raw pain on her face made him realize just what she was going through.
It was a hollow ache that he felt every day, a clawing at his chest. A pain he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy, let alone his friend.

"I'm sorry." His voice was hollow, but he meant every word. "I'm so sorry, Thalia."

A sob escaped her. She sniffled, wiped at her reddened eyes. "Can I tell you something I've never told anyone before? You have to promise to not say anything to anyone."

He nodded. "Of course, Thalia. Your secret's safe with me." She grabbed his hand with both of her own, squeezing so tightly his fingertips turned white. Tears still rolled down her face, but she wasn't sobbing anymore.

"When I was in the form of a pine tree, I was still there. Still somewhat conscious, like a weird half-dream. I could hear his voice. He talked to me every day." She wiped at her eyes with one hand, smiled at the memory despite her sadness. "Some days, he talked about how much he missed me. Other days he was angry. Angry at the gods, at other half-bloods… even angry at you." She paused, sighing. "But sometimes he was happy. He'd talk to me about Annabeth, how well her training was going. Said I'd be proud of her. And, by the gods, I am."

Then her eyes closed. "He poisoned my tree, as you know. But what you don't know- what no one else knows- is… he almost couldn't bring himself to do it. I can… I can still hear him crying. Sobbing and apologizing to me, over and over and over'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Thalia. Please, if you can hear me, please forgive me.' And I have. Maybe he doesn't deserve it, but I've forgiven him a thousand times over. How could I not? He… he loved me."

Without thinking, the Doctor turned and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. She didn't protest or fight him. Rather, she buried her face in his shirt and sobbed. He shushed her, murmuring comforting words. He had a feeling it had been a long time since anyone comforted her when she was upset, let alone held her. "I'm here. I'm right here. It's okay, Thalia."

Percy sat in the driver's seat of Grover's Lamborghini. Grover was asleep in the back. He'd finally given up trying to impress Zoe and Bianca with his pipe music after he played "Poison Ivy" and caused that very stuff to sprout from their Lexus' air conditioner.

As Percy watched the sun go down, he thought of Annabeth. He was afraid to go to sleep, worried about what he might dream.

"Oh, don't be afraid of dreams," a voice said right next to him.

Percy looked over. Somehow, he wasn't surprised to find the homeless man from the rail yard sitting in the shotgun seat. His jeans were so worn out they were almost white. His coat was ripped, with stuffing coming out. He looked kind of like a teddy bear that had been run over by a truck.

Suddenly, there was a sharp knock on Percy's driver side window. He turned and saw the Doctor looking at him. He rolled down the window. "Hey, man. Uh… need something?"

He shrugged. "Just wanted to make sure you were alright." Then his eyes fell on the man sitting in the passenger seat, and he raised an eyebrow. "Oh, it's you."

"Doctor," he replied, grinning. "If I remember correctly, you owe me."

Suddenly Percy remembered something Artemis had said- something about a bet the Doctor had lost to her brother. His eyes widened. "Apollo?"

He put his finger to his lips. "I'm incognito. Call me Fred."

"A god named Fred?" Percy asked, raising his eyebrows. The Doctor bit back a laugh.

Apollo looked uncomfortable all of a sudden. "Eh, well… Zeus insists on certain rules. Hands off, when there's a human quest. Even when something really major is wrong. But nobody messes with my baby sister. Nobody."

"Are you here to help us, then?" the Doctor asked.

"Shh. I already have," he replied, smirking.

Percy caught on to what he was hinting at. "The train. How fast are we moving?"

Apollo chuckled. "Fast enough. Unfortunately, we're running out of time. It's almost sunset. But I imagine we'll get you across a good chunk of America, at least."

"But where is Artemis?" the Doctor asked, giving him a firm look.

Apollo's face darkened. "I know a lot, and I see a lot. But even I don't know that. She's… clouded from me. I don't like it."

"And Annabeth?" Percy added.

He frowned. "Oh, you mean that girl you lost? Hmm. I don't know."

Percy tried not to feel mad. He knew the gods had a hard time taking mortals seriously, even half-bloods. After all, they lived such short lives compared to the gods.

"What about the monster Artemis was seeking?" he asked. "Do you know what it is?"

"No," Apollo said. "But there is one who might. If you haven't yet found the monster when you reach San Francisco, seek out Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea. He has a long memory and a sharp eye. He has the gift of knowledge sometimes kept obscure from my Oracle."

"But it's your Oracle," Percy protested. "Can't you tell us what the prophecy means?"

Apollo sighed. "You might as well ask an artist to explain his art, or ask a poet to explain his poem. It defeats the purpose. The meaning is only clear through the search."

The Doctor gave him a flat look. "In other words, you don't know."

Apollo checked his watch. "Ah, look at the time! I have to run. I doubt I can risk helping you again, Percy, but remember what I said! Get some sleep! And when you return, I expect a good haiku about your journey! And, Doctor, since I'm feeling generous, don't worry about that bet."

Percy wanted to protest that he wasn't tired and that he'd never made up a haiku in his life, but Apollo snapped his fingers, and the next thing Percy knew, he was closing his eyes.

In the dream, Percy was someone else. He was wearing an old-fashioned Greek tunic and laced leather sandals. The Nemean Lion's skin was wrapped around his back like a cape, and he was running somewhere, being pulled along by a girl who was tightly gripping his hand.

"Hurry!" she said. It was too dark to see her face clearly, but Percy could hear the fear in her voice. "He will find us!"

It was nighttime. A million stars blazed above. They were running through tall grass, and the scent of a thousand different flowers made the air intoxicating. It was a beautiful garden, and yet the girl was leading him through it, as if they were about to die.

"I'm not afraid," he tried to tell her.

"You should be!" she said, pulling Percy along. She had long dark hair braided down her back. Her silk robes glowed faintly in the starlight.

They raced up the side of the hill. She pulled him behind a thorn bush and they collapsed, both breathing heavily. Percy didn't know why the girl was scared. The garden seemed so peaceful. And he felt strong. Stronger than he'd ever felt before.

"There is no need to run," Percy told her. His voice sounded deeper, much more confident. "I have bested a thousand monsters with my bare hands."

"Not this one," the girl said. "Ladon is too strong. You must go around, up the mountain to my father. It is the only way."

The hurt in her voice surprised him. She was really concerned, almost like she cared about him.

"I don't trust your father," Percy said.

"You should not," the girl agreed. "You will have to trick him. But you cannot take the prize directly. You will die.'"

Percy chuckled. "Then why don't you help me, pretty one?"

"I… I am afraid. Ladon will stop me. My sisters, if they found out… they would disown me."

"Then there's nothing for it." Percy stood up, rubbing his hands together.

"Wait.'" the girl said.

She seemed to be agonizing over a decision. Then, her fingers trembling, she reached up and plucked a long white brooch from her hair. "If you must fight, take this. My mother, Pleione, gave it to me. She was a daughter of the ocean, and the ocean's power is within it. My immortal power."

The girl breathed on the pin and it glowed faintly. It gleamed in the starlight like polished abalone.

"Take it," she told me. "And make of it a weapon."

Percy laughed. "A hairpin? How will this slay Ladon, pretty one?"

"It may not," she admitted. "But it is all I can offer, if you insist on being stubborn."

The girl's voice softened his heart. Percy reached down and took the hairpin, and as he did, it grew longer and heavier in his hand, until he held a familiar bronze sword.

"Well balanced," he said. "Though I usually prefer to use my bare hands. What shall I name this blade?"

"Anaklusmos," the girl said sadly. "The current that takes one by surprise. And before you know it, you have been swept out to sea."

Before Percy could thank her, there was a trampling sound in the grass, a hiss like air escaping a tire, and the girl said, "Too late! He is here!"

Percy sat bolt upright in the Lamborghini's driver's seat. Grover was shaking his arm.

"Percy," he said. "It's morning. The train's stopped. Come on!"

He tried to shake off his drowsiness. Thalia, Zoe, the Doctor, and Bianca had already rolled up the metal curtains. Outside were snowy mountains dotted with pine trees, the sun rising red between two peaks.

Percy fished his pen out of his pocket and stared at it. Anaklusmos, the Ancient Greek name for Riptide. A different form, but he was sure it was the same blade he'd seen in the dream.

And he was sure of something else, too. The girl Percy had seen was Zoe Nightshade.

Chapter Text

They arrived on the outskirts of a little ski town nestled in the mountains. The sign said WELCOME TO CLOUDCROFT, NEW MEXICO. The air was cold and thin. The roofs of the cabins were heaped with snow, and dirty mounds of it were piled up on the sides of the streets. Tall pine trees loomed over the valley, casting pitch-black shadows, though the morning was sunny.

Even with the lion-skin coat, Percy was freezing by the time they got to Main Street, which was about half a mile from the train tracks. As they walked, he and the Doctor told Grover about the conversation they had with Apollo the night before- how he'd told them to seek out Nereus in San Francisco.

Grover looked uneasy. "That's good, I guess. But we've got to get there first."

Percy tried not to get too depressed about their chances. He didn't want to send Grover into a panic, but knew there was another huge deadline looming, aside from saving Artemis in time for her council of the gods. The General had said Annabeth would only be kept alive until the winter solstice. That was Friday, only four days away. And he'd said something about a sacrifice. He didn't like the sound of that at all.

They stopped in the middle of town. Pretty much everything could be seen from there: a school, a bunch of tourist stores and cafes, some ski cabins, and a grocery store.

"Great," Thalia said, looking around. "No bus station. No taxis. No car rental. No way out." At that, the Doctor started muttering to himself again, the way he had when they thought themselves stranded at the railyard.

"There's a coffee shop!" said Grover.

"Yes," Zoe said. "Coffee is good."

"And pastries," Grover sighed dreamily. "And wax paper."

Thalia sighed. "Fine. How about you two go get us some food. Percy, Bianca, and I will check in the grocery store. Maybe they can give us directions. Doctor, I need you to keep an eye out for anything suspicious; I know you're good at that." He nodded.

They agreed to meet back in front of the grocery store in fifteen minutes. Bianca looked a little uncomfortable coming with Percy and Thalia, but she went anyway.

Inside the store, they found out a few valuable things about Cloudcroft: there wasn't enough snow for skiing, the grocery store sold rubber rats for a dollar each, and there was no easy way in or out of town except for driving.

"You could call for a taxi from Alamogordo," the clerk said doubtfully. "That's down at the bottom of the mountains, but it would take at least an hour to get here. Cost several hundred dollars."

The clerk looked so lonely, Percy decided to buy a rubber rat. Then they headed back outside and stood on the porch.

"Wonderful," Thalia grumped. "I'm going to walk down the street, see if anybody in the other shops has a suggestion."

"But the clerk said-"

"I know," she told him. "I'm checking anyway."

Percy let her go. He knew how it felt to be restless. All half-bloods had attention deficit problems because of their inborn battlefield reflexes. They couldn't stand just waiting around. Also, he had a feeling Thalia was still upset over their conversation the previous night about Luke.

Bianca and Percy stood together awkwardly. He was never very comfortable talking one-on-one with girls anyway, and he'd never been alone with Bianca before. He wasn't sure what to say, especially since she was a Hunter now.

"Nice rat," she said at last.

Percy set it on the porch railing. Maybe it would attract more business for the store.

"So… how do you like being a Hunter so far?" he asked.

She pursed her lips. "You're not still mad at me for joining, are you?"

"Nah. Long as, you know… you're happy."

"I'm not sure 'happy' is the right word, with Lady Artemis gone. But being a Hunter is definitely cool. I feel calmer somehow. Everything seems to have slowed down around me. I guess that's the immortality."

Percy stared at her, trying to see the difference. She did seem more confident than before, more at peace. She didn't hide her face under a green cap anymore. She kept her hair tied back, and she looked him right in the eyes when she spoke. With a shiver, he realized that five hundred or a thousand years from now, Bianca di Angelo would look exactly the same as she did today. She might be having a conversation like that with some other half-blood long after Percy was dead, but Bianca would still look twelve years old.

"Nico didn't understand my decision," Bianca murmured. She looked at Percy like she wanted assurance it was okay.

"He'll be all right," he said. "Camp Half-Blood takes in a lot of young kids. They did that for Annabeth."

Bianca nodded. "I hope we find her. Annabeth, I mean. She's lucky to have a friend like you."

"Lot of good it did her."

"Don't blame yourself, Percy. You risked your life to save my brother and me. I mean, that was seriously brave. If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't have felt okay about leaving Nico at the camp. I figured if there were people like you there, Nico would be fine. You're a good guy."

The compliment took Percy completely by surprise. "Even though I knocked you down in capture the flag?"

She laughed. "Okay. Except for that, you're a good guy."

A couple hundred yards away, Grover and Zoe came out of the coffee shop loaded down with pastry bags and drinks. He almost didn't want them to come back yet. It was… odd, but Percy realized he liked talking to Bianca. She wasn't so bad. A lot easier to hang out with than Zoe Nightshade, that was for sure.

"So, what's the story with you and Nico?" he asked her. "Where did you go to school before Westover?"

She frowned. "I think it was a boarding school in DC. It seems like so long ago."

"You never lived with your parents? I mean, your mortal parent?"

"We were told our parents were dead. There was a bank trust for us. A lot of money, I think. A lawyer would come by once in a while to check on us. Then Nico and I had to leave that school."


She knit her eyebrows. "We had to go somewhere. I remember it was important. We traveled a long way. And we stayed in this hotel for a few weeks. And then… I don't know. One day a different lawyer came to get us out. He said it was time for us to leave. He drove us back east, through DC. Then up into Maine. And we started going to Westover."

It was a strange story. Then again, Percy reminded himself that Bianca and Nico were half-bloods. Nothing would be normal for them.

"So… you've been raising Nico pretty much all your life?" he asked. "Just the two of you?"

She nodded. "That's why I wanted to join the Hunters so bad. I mean, I know it's selfish, but I wanted my own life and friends. I love Nico, don't get me wrong, but I just needed to find out what it would be like not to be a big sister twenty-four hours a day."

Percy thought back to the previous summer, the way he'd felt when he found out he had a Cyclops for a baby brother. He could relate to what Bianca was saying.

"Zoe seems to trust you," Percy said. "What were you guys talking about, anyway- something dangerous about the quest?"


Yesterday morning on the pavilion," he said, before he could stop himself. "Something about the General."

Her face darkened. "How did you… The invisibility hat. Were you eavesdropping?"

"No! I mean, not really. I just-"

He was saved from trying to explain when Zoe and Grover arrived with drinks and pastries. Hot chocolate for him and Bianca, and coffee for them. Percy got a blueberry muffin, and it tasted so good that he was almost able to ignore the outraged look Bianca was giving him.

"We should do the tracking spell," Zoe said. "Grover, do you have any acorns left?"

"Umm," Grover mumbled. He was chewing on a bran muffin, wrapper and all. "I think so. I just need to-"

He froze.

Percy was about to ask what was wrong, when a warm breeze rustled past, like a gust of springtime had gotten lost in the middle of winter. Fresh air seasoned with wildflowers and sunshine. And something else- almost like a voice, trying to say something. A warning.

Zoe gasped. "Grover, thy cup."

Grover dropped his coffee cup, which was decorated with pictures of birds. Suddenly the birds peeled off the cup and flew away- a flock of tiny doves. Percy's rubber rat squeaked. It scampered off the railing and into the trees- real fur, real whiskers.

Grover collapsed next to his coffee, which steamed against the snow. They gathered around him and tried to wake him up. He groaned, his eyes fluttering.

"Hey!" Thalia said, running up from the street. "I just… What's wrong with Grover?"

"I don't know," I said. "He collapsed."

"Uuuuuhhhh," Grover groaned.

"Well, get him up!" Thalia said. She had her spear in her hand. She looked behind her as if she were being followed. "We have to get out of here." She called out for the Doctor. "Come on! Grover freaked; we gotta go!"

They made it to the edge of the town before the first two skeleton warriors appeared. The creatures stepped from the trees on either side of the road. Instead of gray camouflage, they were now wearing blue New Mexico State Police uniforms, but they had the same transparent gray skin and yellow eyes.

They drew their handguns. At one point, Percy had thought it would be cool to learn how to fire a gun, but the moment the skeletons trained their guns on him, he changed his mind.

Thalia tapped her bracelet. Aegis spiraled to life on her arm, but the warriors didn't flinch. Their glowing yellow eyes bored right into Percy.

He drew Riptide, though he wasn't sure what good it would do against guns.

Zoe and Bianca drew their bows, but Bianca was having trouble because Grover kept swooning and leaning against her.

"Back up," Thalia said.

They started to- but then Percy heard a rustling of branches. Two more skeletons appeared on the road behind them. They were surrounded.

Percy wondered where the other skeletons were. He'd seen a dozen at the Smithsonian. Then one of the warriors raised a cell phone to his mouth and spoke into it.

Except he wasn't speaking. He made a clattering, clicking sound, like dry teeth on bone. Suddenly he understood what was going on. The skeletons had split up to look for them. These skeletons were now calling their brethren. Soon they would have a full party on their hands.

"It's near," Grover moaned.

"It's here," Percy said.

"No," he insisted. "The gift. The gift from the Wild."

Percy didn't know what he was talking about, but he was worried about his friend's condition. He was in no shape to walk, much less fight.

"Doctor," Thalia hissed, her voice low, "A miracle from that toy of yours would be nice right about now."

"Agreed," said Zoe.

"The Wild!" Grover moaned.

The Doctor pointed his sonic screwdriver at the skeletons. The green light flashed, it emitted a buzzing sound, and suddenly the skeletons disintegrated, turning to fine white dust. A warm wind blew through the canyon a heartbeat afterward, rustling the trees and taking the fine white powder that used to be the warriors with it.

Thalia's jaw dropped. "What… how… you…"

The Doctor grinned. "If they were made of wood, we'd have a problem on our hands. But, luckily, they weren't, so…" he shrugged nonchalantly. "Poof. Gone. Come on, we better get a move on before the, ah… cavalry arrives."

There was a crashing sound in the forest to the left, like a bulldozer. Maybe the skeletons' reinforcements were arriving.

"Plan?" Percy said as they began to retreat.

No one answered. The trees behind where the skeletons had been started shivering. Branches cracked.

"A gift," Grover muttered.

And then, with a mighty roar, the largest pig Percy had ever seen came crashing into the road. It was a wild boar, thirty feet high, with a pink snout and tusks the size of canoes. Its back bristled with brown hair, and its eyes were wild and angry.

"REEEEEEEEET!" it squealed.

Then the pig turned on them.

Thalia raised her spear, but Grover yelled, "Don't kill it!'"

The boar grunted and pawed the ground, ready to charge.

"That's the Erymanthian Boar," Zoe said, trying to stay calm. "I don't think we can kill it."

"It's a gift," Grover said. "A blessing from the Wild!"

The boar said "REEEEEEET!" and swung its tusk. Zoe and Bianca dived out of the way. Percy had to push Grover so he wouldn't get launched into the mountain.

"Yeah, I feel blessed!" he yelled. "Scatter!"

They ran in different directions, though the Doctor helped Grover get up and move, and for a moment the boar was confused.

"It wants to kill us!" Thalia said.

"Of course," Grover said. "It's wild!"

"So how is that a blessing?" Bianca asked.

It seemed a fair question to Percy- and probably everyone else- but the pig was offended and charged her. She was faster than Percy had realized. She rolled out of the way of its hooves and came up behind the beast. It lashed out with its tusks and pulverized the WELCOME TO CLOUDCROFT sign.

Percy racked his brain, trying to remember the myth of the boar. He was fairly sure Hercules had fought the beast once but couldn't remember how he'd beaten it. He had a vague memory of the boar plowing down several Greek cities before Hercules managed to subdue it. He hoped Cloudcroft was insured against giant wild boar attacks.

"Keep moving!" Zoe yelled. She and Bianca ran in opposite directions. Grover danced around the boar, playing his pipes while the boar snorted and tried to gouge him. The Doctor pointed his sonic screwdriver at it, causing the creature to squeal and back away. But Thalia and Percy weren't so lucky. When the boar turned on them, Thalia made the mistake of raising Aegis in defense. The sight of the Medusa head made the boar squeal in outrage, and it charged.

The two only managed to keep ahead of it because they ran uphill and could dodge in and out of trees while the boar had to plow through them.

Suddenly the Doctor was beside them, grinning like a loon. "Running! This is what I'm best at, you know!"

On the other side of the hill, Percy's eyes fell on an old stretch of train tracks, half buried in the snow.

"This way.'" He grabbed Thalia's arm and they ran along the rails while the boar roared behind them, slipping and sliding as it tried to navigate the steep hillside. Its hooves were not made for that, thankfully.

Ahead of them, Percy saw a covered tunnel. Past that, an old trestle bridge spanning a gorge. Suddenly he had a crazy idea.

"Follow me!"

Thalia slowed down- Percy didn't have time to ask why- but he pulled her along and she reluctantly followed. Behind them, a ten-ton pig was knocking down pine trees and crushing boulders under its hooves as it gave chase.

The three of them ran into the tunnel and came out on the other side.

"No!" Thalia screamed.

She turned as white as ice. They were at the edge of the bridge. Below, the mountain dropped away into a snow-filled gorge about seventy feet below.

The boar was right behind them.

"Come on!" Percy said. "It'll hold our weight, probably."

"I can't!" Thalia yelled. Her eyes were wild with fear.

The boar smashed into the covered tunnel, tearing through at full speed.

The Doctor held out his arm. "Thalia, take my hand. We'll do this together."

"Now!" Percy yelled at Thalia.

She grabbed the Doctor's hand, squeezing tightly enough to turn his fingers as pale as she was. Thalia looked down and swallowed. She seemed to be turning green.

Percy didn't have time to process why. The boar was charging through the tunnel, straight toward them. Plan B, he thought to himself. He tackled Thalia, sending all three of them sideways off the edge of the bridge, into the side of the mountain. They slid on Aegis like a snowboard, over rocks and mud and snow, racing downhill. The boar was less fortunate; it couldn't turn that fast, so all ten tons of the monster charged out onto the tiny trestle, which buckled under its weight. The boar free-fell into the gorge with a mighty squeal and landed in a snowdrift.

The shield skidded to a stop. She and Percy were both breathing hard. He was cut up and bleeding. Thalia had pine needles in her hair. The Doctor seemed fine, but Thalia still had a death grip on his hand.
Next to them, the wild boar was squealing and struggling. All Percy could see was the bristly tip of its back. It was wedged completely in the snow. It didn't seem to be hurt, but it wasn't going anywhere, either.

Thalia leaned backward into the Doctor's side, hyperventilating. His eyes widened, and he wrapped one arm around her. "Hey, it's alright. You're alright." She nodded slowly, but her eyes were closed, and her breathing was still ragged. Her eyes opened very slowly.

Percy looked at Thalia. "You're afraid of heights."

Now that they were safely down the mountain, her eyes had their usual angry look. "Don't be stupid."

"That explains why you freaked out on Apollo's bus. Why you didn't want to talk about it."

She took a deep breath. Then she brushed the pine needles out of her hair. "If you tell anyone, I swear-"

"No, no," he said. "That's cool. It's just… the daughter of Zeus, the Lord of the Sky, afraid of heights?"

She was about to knock him into the snow when, above them, Grover's voice called, "Hello?!"

"Down here!" Percy shouted.

Then the Doctor turned to him. "Percy, you're bleeding. Are you okay?"

He shrugged. "It's just a few scratches. I'll be fine."

The Doctor gave him a worried look. "You sure? I mean, no offense, but you look like you were attacked by a bunch of half-mad cats."

Thalia bit back a laugh while Percy exclaimed in protest. "I know, but hey! Relax; I'm fine."

A few minutes later, Zoe, Bianca, and Grover joined them. All six of them stood watching the wild boar struggle in the snow.

"A blessing of the Wild," Grover said, though he now looked agitated.

"I agree," Zoe said. "We must use it."

"Hold up," Thalia said irritably. She still looked like she'd just lost a fight with a Christmas tree. "Explain to me why you're so sure this pig is a blessing."

Grover looked over, distracted. "It's our ride west. Do you have any idea how fast this boar can travel?"

"Fun," Percy said. "Like… pig cowboys." The Doctor nodded, turning his sonic screwdriver over in his fingers. "That's an apt way of putting it."

Grover nodded. "We need to get aboard. I wish… I wish I had more time to look around. But it's gone now."

"What's gone?"

Grover didn't seem to hear Percy. He walked over to the boar and jumped onto its back. Already the boar was starting to make some headway through the drift. Once it broke free, there would be no stopping it. Grover took out his pipes. He started playing a snappy tune and tossed an apple in front of the boar. The apple floated and spun right above the boar's nose, and the boar went crazy, straining to get it.

"Automatic steering," Thalia murmured. "Great."

She trudged over and jumped on behind Grover, which still left plenty of room for the rest of them. The Doctor climbed up onto the back of the animal after Thalia and Grover. "Now, whatever you do, don't think about falling off."

"Noted," Thalia said sarcastically.

Zoe and Bianca walked toward the boar.

"Wait a second," Percy said. "Do you two know what Grover is talking about— this wild blessing?"

"Of course," Zoe said. "Did you not feel it in the wind? It was so strong… I never thought I would sense that presence again."

"What presence?"

She stared at Percy like he was a complete idiot. "The Lord of the Wild, of course. Just for a moment, in the arrival of the boar, I felt the presence of Pan."

Chapter Text

They rode the boar until sunset, which was about all Percy— and everyone else— could take. Sitting on the back of the animal was very uncomfortable.

Percy had no idea how many miles they covered, but the mountains faded into the distance and were replaced by miles of flat, dry land. The grass and scrub brush got sparser until the boar was galloping across the desert.

As night fell, the boar came to a stop at a creek bed and snorted. He started drinking the muddy water, then ripped a saguaro cactus out of the ground and chewed it, needles and all.

"This is as far as he'll go," Grover said. "We need to get off while he's eating."

No one needed convincing. All six of them slipped off the boar's back while he was busy ripping up cacti. Then they walked away as best they could with their stiff muscles. Only the Doctor didn't seem that bothered, though even he was complaining that his back had stiffened up somewhat. Thalia proceeded to call him old after that.

After its third saguaro and another drink of muddy water, the boar squealed and belched, then whirled around and galloped back toward the east.

"It likes the mountains better," Percy guessed.

"I can't blame it," Thalia said, pointing in front of them. "Look."

Ahead of them was a two-lane road half covered with sand. On the other side of the road was a cluster of buildings too small to be a town: a boarded-up house, a taco shop that looked like it hadn't been open since before Zoe Nightshade was born, and a white stucco post office with a sign that said GILA CLAW, ARIZONA hanging crooked above the door. Beyond that was a range of hills.
Then Percy realized they weren't regular hills. The countryside was too flat for that. The hills were enormous mounds of old cars, appliances, and other scrap metal. It was a junkyard that seemed to go on forever.

His jaw dropped. "Whoa."

The Doctor, who had suddenly come up beside them, nodded. "'Whoa' is right, Percy. Something about that place doesn't seem right."

"Something tells me we're not going to find a car rental here," Thalia said. She looked at Grover. "I don't suppose you've got another wild boar up your sleeve?" He shook his head, so Thalia turned to the Doctor. "Can that toy of yours get us further west?"

The Doctor sighed. "Afraid not, no. There is something I could do, but I don't know if—"
His words died on his lips when he caught sight of Grover. "Grover? Are you okay?"

Grover sniffed the wind, looking nervous. He fished out his acorns and threw them into the sand, then played his pipes. They rearranged themselves in a pattern that made no sense to Percy, but Grover and the Doctor looked concerned.

"That's us," he said. "Those six nuts right there."

"Which one is me?" Percy asked.

"The little deformed one," Zoe suggested.

"Oh, shut up."

"That cluster right there," Grover said, pointing to the left, "that's trouble."

"A monster?" Thalia asked.

Grover looked uneasy. "I don't smell anything, which doesn't make sense. But the acorns don't lie. Our next challenge…"

He pointed straight toward the junkyard. With the sunlight almost gone, the hills of metal looked like something on an alien planet.

The Doctor tried to protest. "I could—"

"No," Grover replied, cutting him off. "Whatever you have planned, Doctor, it won't work. We have to go there. Trust me."

 They decided to camp for the night and try the junkyard in the morning. None of them wanted to go Dumpster-diving in the dark.

Zoe and Bianca produced six sleeping bags and foam mattresses out of their backpacks. Percy didn't know how they did it, because the packs were tiny, but figured they must've been enchanted to hold so much stuff. He'd noticed their bows and quivers were also magic. Percy never really thought about it, but when the Hunters needed them, their bows just appeared slung over their backs. And when they didn't, they were gone.

The Doctor seemed intrigued by how the backpacks worked, then proceeded to demonstrate that his jacket pockets were also, as he called it, bigger on the inside. Then he tried to argue that he didn't need or want to sleep, but stopped talking altogether when Thalia threatened to electrocute him if he didn't shut up. Well, more accurately, he stopped arguing, but kept muttering under his breath and fiddling with his sonic screwdriver.

The night got cold fast, so Percy and the Doctor collected old boards from the ruined house. While they were prying boards from the door and windows, they talked. Percy found that he enjoyed the man's company, even if he was very weird and frighteningly smart.

One of the first things Percy said to him, before he could stop himself, was a question about Annabeth.

As he strained to pull a window board loose, Percy asked, "So… what was it like, knowing Annabeth when she was that young?" Then he looked at the ground and sighed. "Sorry, I know that's a weird question, but—"

"No, it's not weird," the Doctor replied, pointing his sonic at a different piece of wood. "Damn it, it still doesn't work. I've got to invent a setting for wood," he muttered distractedly. Then he cleared his throat.

"Anyway, as I was saying, it's not weird. You're her friend, and you're probably wondering why she never mentioned me. Or why Thalia never did either, for that matter. In truth, I don't really know. You'd have to ask them yourselves." He sighed. "But, to answer your question, it was… interesting, to say the least. Never thought I'd find myself constantly checking up on a group of children." He chuckled, smiling to himself. "Luke always tried to get me to spar with him to see if he could beat me. But I never agreed to do it. Thalia liked to make me listen to rock music. I didn't mind all that much, to be honest. And Annabeth…" he sighed again, and Percy suddenly became aware of how sad the Doctor's eyes looked. The smile on his face was a wistful one.

"Annabeth liked to grab my hand and drag me around wherever they were camped out and show me her favorite places. The moment I sat down anywhere, she'd crawl onto my lap and start chattering away about what she had gotten up to since I was last there. She always used to ask me to tell her stories. A lot of times, I'd tell her different Greek myths, since they were her favorite. And I always reminded her that she was the smartest, bravest person I knew. Because… in a way, she was. She really was." He paused, drew a line in the sand with the toe of his boot. "Often, I'd find her when I'd had a particularly awful day. But no matter how bad it had been… she made me smile." He looked back up at Percy. "I love her, you know. The way a father loves his daughter. Which is why I'm going to do everything I can to get her back."

Percy nodded. "Yeah, I know." Despite the weight of everything, he smiled. "I'm sure she loves you, too. I mean… it almost sounds like you raised her."

The Doctor chuckled, shook his head. "No. Luke, Thalia, and Chiron did that."

Percy shrugged. "Maybe, but… you care about her. I'm sure she knows that."

The Doctor nodded. "Yeah, I suppose so." He smiled a bit. "What about you? What's your story? If you don't mind me asking," he added.

Percy shook his head, waving his hand dismissively. "No, it's cool. My story is… kinda crazy," he said, smirking. "Ever since I was twelve, I've been caught up in dangerous stuff."

The Doctor laughed slightly, nodding. "Yeah, Thalia told me about the stuff you did— at least, what she knew about it. Retrieving the Master Bolt, healing her pine tree… that seems like quite the adventure. Brave, too."

Percy suddenly felt self-conscious at receiving that praise. "Anyone could've done it," he said, shrugging.

The Doctor rolled his eyes. "Don't be so modest; you're a kid, for God's sake. I don't know of that many twelve-year-olds who went to the Underworld and back, or people who found the Golden Fleece when they were thirteen. Give yourself some credit!"

Percy's ears went red. "Seriously, dude, stop talking about it." The Doctor shrugged. "Okay, fine."

Then they heard Thalia yelling for them to hurry up before they all froze to death, so they decided to suspend conversation until they got back with the firewood.

When they made it back to the campsite, Thalia zapped the boards with an electric shock to start a campfire, and soon the small group was feeling comfortable— well, as comfortable as they could get in a run-down ghost town in the middle of nowhere.

"The stars are out," Zoe said, looking up at the sky.

Percy knew she was right- the inky sky was dotted with hundreds of tiny sparkling lights, like a black evening gown dotted with diamonds. There were no city lights in the desert to turn the sky orange.

"Amazing," Bianca breathed, smiling up at the stars. "I've never actually seen the Milky Way."

The Doctor smiled in turn when he saw the look of rapture on Bianca's face. Then he sighed. "A long time ago, there were many more. Whole constellations have disappeared because of human light pollution."

"Anybody ever tell you that you talk like you're not human?" Percy asked.

"Yeah, well, neither does she," the Doctor said, nodding at Zoe. The Hunter rolled her eyes, raised a brow at him. "I am a Hunter. I care what happens to the wild places of the world. Can the same be said for thee? Or him?" she said, glancing at Percy.

"For you," Thalia corrected. "Not thee."

"But you use you for the beginning of a sentence," Zoe argued.

"And for the end," Thalia said. "No thou. No thee. Just you."

Zoe threw up her hands in exasperation. "I hate this language. It changes too often!"

The Doctor chuckled. "You and me both, Zoe Nightshade. You and me both."

Grover sighed. He was still looking up at the stars like he was still thinking about the light pollution problem. "If only Pan were here, he would set things right."

Zoe nodded sadly.

"Maybe it was the coffee," Grover said. "I was drinking coffee, and the wind came. Maybe if I drank more coffee…"

Percy was fairly sure coffee had nothing to do with what had happened in Cloudcroft, but he didn't have the heart to tell Grover. He thought about the rubber rat and the tiny birds that had suddenly come alive when the wind blew. "Grover, do you really think that was Pan? I mean, I know you want it to be."

"He sent us help," Grover insisted. "I don't know how or why. But it was his presence. After this quest is done, I'm going back to New Mexico and drinking a lot of coffee. It's the best lead we've gotten in two thousand years. I was so close."

Percy didn't answer— he didn't want to squash his best friend's hopes.

"What I want to know," Thalia said, looking at the Doctor, "is how you destroyed all of the zombies. There are a lot more out there somewhere. We need to figure out how to fight them."

The Doctor sighed. "It's very hard to explain—"

"Don't give me that!" Thalia shot back. "What happens if you're not there and we get attacked? What will we do then? There's got to be some way to destroy those things without that screwdriver."

"If you really think I'd leave you five behind while we're—"

"Never mind," Zoe told them. "We will find the answer. In the meantime, we should plan our next move. When we get through this junkyard, we must continue west. If we can find a road, we can hitchhike to the nearest city. I think that would be Las Vegas."

Percy was about to protest that he and Grover had had bad experiences in that town, but Bianca beat them to it.

"No!" she said. "Not there!"

She looked really freaked out, like she'd just been dropped off the steep end of a roller coaster.

Zoe frowned. "Why?"

Bianca took a shaky breath. "I… I think we stayed there for a while. Nico and I. When we were traveling. And then, I can't remember…"

The Doctor glanced at her in concern, moved over slightly so he could put one hand on top of hers. "Are you okay?"

Suddenly, Percy realized why he trusted the Doctor. It wasn't just because Chiron knew him or because of the Oracle's prophecy, or even because of his connection to Annabeth. It was because of the look he'd seen in the man's eyes more than once, and it was present now as he tried to reassure Bianca.

Percy trusted the Doctor because he was kind.

Then he had a bad thought. Percy remembered what Bianca had told him about Nico and her staying in a hotel for a while. He met Grover's eyes, and got the feeling he was thinking the same thing.

"Bianca," Percy said. "That hotel you stayed at. Was it possibly called the Lotus Hotel and Casino?"

Her eyes widened. "How could you know that?"

"Oh, great," he muttered.

"Wait," Thalia said. "What is the Lotus Casino?"

"A couple of years ago," Percy explained, "Grover, Annabeth, and I got trapped there. It's designed so you never want to leave. We stayed for about an hour. When we came out, five days had passed. It makes time speed up."

"No," Bianca said. "No, that's not possible."

The Doctor nodded gravely. "I'm afraid it is possible, Bianca. Time is easy to manipulate, if you know what you're doing."

"You said somebody came and got you out," Percy remembered.


"What did he look like? What did he say?"

"I… I don't remember. Please, I really don't want to talk about this." The Doctor nodded in understanding, and Bianca squeezed his hand tight. "It's alright, Bianca," he murmured.

Zoe sat forward, her eyebrows knit with concern. "You said that Washington, D.C., had changed when you went back last summer. You didn't remember the subway being there. And the Doctor said it was built in 1967."

"Yes, but—"

"Bianca," Zoe said, "can you tell me the name of the president of the United States right now?"

"Don't be silly," Bianca replied. She told her the correct name of the president.

"And who was the president before that?" Zoe asked.

Bianca thought for a while. "Roosevelt."

Zoe swallowed. "Theodore or Franklin'?"

"Franklin," Bianca said. "FDR."

"Like FDR Drive?" Percy asked. That was about all he knew about FDR.

The Doctor's eyes widened. "Bianca… Franklin Roosevelt was not the last president. That was about seventy years ago."

"That's impossible," Bianca said. "I… I'm not that old."

She stared at her hands as if to make sure they weren't wrinkled.

Thalia's eyes turned sad. Percy supposed she knew what it was like to get pulled out of time for a while. "It's okay, Bianca. The important thing is you and Nico are safe. You made it out."

"But how?" Percy said. "We were only in there for an hour and we barely escaped. How could you have escaped after being there for so long?"

"I told you." Bianca looked about ready to cry. "A man came and said it was time to leave. And—"

"But who? Why did he do it?"

Before she could answer, they were hit with a blazing light from down the road. The headlights of a car appeared out of nowhere. Percy half-hoped it was Apollo, come to give them a ride again, but the engine was way too silent for the sun chariot, and it was nighttime anyway. They grabbed their sleeping bags and got out of the way as a deathly white limousine slid to a stop in front of them.

 The back door of the limo opened right next to Percy. Before he could step away, the point of a sword touched his throat.

Percy heard Zoe and Bianca drawing their bows and the Doctor shouting in protest. As the owner of the sword got out of the car, Percy moved back very slowly. He had to, because the man was pushing the point under his chin.

He smiled cruelly. "Not so fast now, are you, punk?"

He was a big man with a crew cut, a black leather biker's jacket, black jeans, a white muscle shirt, and combat boots. Wraparound shades hid his eyes, but Percy knew what was behind those glasses— hollow sockets filled with flames.

"Ares," he growled.

The war god glanced at Percy's friends. "At ease, people."

He snapped his fingers, and their weapons fell to the ground. Including the Doctor's sonic screwdriver.

"This is a friendly meeting." He dug the point of his blade a little farther under Percy's chin. "Of course, I'd like to take your head for a trophy, but someone wants to see you. And I never behead my enemies in front of a lady."

"What lady?" Thalia asked.

Ares looked over at her. "Well, well. I heard you were back."

He lowered his sword and pushed Percy away.

"Thalia, daughter of Zeus," Ares mused. "You're not hanging out with very good company."

Suddenly, the Doctor spoke up. "What's your business, Ares?" he asked. "Who's in the car?"

Ares' gaze shifted over to the Doctor. "Well, well. If it isn't the Doctor," he growled. "Give me one good reason I shouldn't kill you now. You ended the greatest war I'd ever seen."

"At the expense of billions," he replied. "You know I live with that guilt every day. That's punishment enough, don't you think?"

Ares frowned at the Doctor and let out an irritated groan. "Fine. Whatever. And I doubt my guest will want to meet the rest of your little group, other than you and Percy. Particularly not them," he said, jutting his chin toward Zoe and Bianca. "Why don't you all go get some tacos while you wait? Only take Percy and the Doctor here a few minutes."

"We will not leave them alone with thee, Lord Ares," Zoe said.

"Besides," Grover managed, "the taco place is closed."

Ares snapped his fingers again. The lights inside the taqueria suddenly blazed to life. The boards flew off the door and the CLOSED sign flipped to OPEN. "You were saying, goat boy?"

"Go on," Percy told his friends. "I'll handle this."

He tried to sound more confident than he felt. Even so, he didn't think Ares was fooled.

"You heard the boy," Ares said. "He's big and strong. He's got things under control."

The Doctor sighed and nodded. "We'll be fine. Do as he says."

Their friends reluctantly headed over to the taco restaurant. Ares regarded them both with loathing, then opened the limousine door like a chauffeur.

"One at a time. Doctor, you first. Percy can wait out here. I won't hurt him. And mind your manners. She's not as forgiving of rudeness as I am."

 When the Doctor laid eyes on the woman, he froze. For a moment, he was convinced he was staring into the eyes of a ghost. He blinked several times, and then the appearance of her face flickered slightly before shifting back to the all too familiar face he'd first seen. That was when he realized who he was in the company of.

"Lady Aphrodite," he said politely, bowing his head as he sat down on the seat next to her. "Pleased to meet you."

She giggled. "Good looks and good manners. Even better than I expected. I've been wanting to meet you for some time, Doctor."

"Really?" he asked. Curiosity got the better of him. "Why? If you don't mind me asking."

Aphrodite smiled at him, and his hearts clenched. His eyes dropped to the floor. He couldn't look at her. It hurt too much for that.

He knew that whenever Aphrodite appeared to someone, the image of her would tend to flicker as she changed her appearance to get closer to that person's ideal of beauty. The fact that the image of her had hardly changed at all told the Doctor something that he had already known deep down: there would only be one person he loved as much as the ghost sitting across from him.

Her hair was bleached blonde, with dark roots. Her eyes were a warm amber. Her lips were full and soft. The light in her eyes was unendingly kind.

He couldn't look at Aphrodite, because all he saw in her was Rose Tyler. He even heard her voice when the goddess spoke.

As if she sensed the shift in his mood, Aphrodite sighed. "You've done great things. Not all of them plainly out of virtue. You were once ready to sacrifice your life to save someone you loved."

The Doctor nodded. "Yes. That's true." He didn't have to ask. He already knew what she was talking about. When he'd given one of his lives to save Rose.

"I'm curious," she murmured. "Why are you on this quest? And don't say it's to save Artemis, I know it's not that. Tell me the real reason."

"Because it's the right thing to do. Because I want to help Annabeth and Artemis. I want them to be safe. That's it, pure and simple."

She made a tsk sound, sighed. "I suspect Percy's answer will be more interesting than that. Even so…" Aphrodite smiled at him again. It was that achingly familiar tongue-in-teeth grin, the smile Rose reserved for him alone.

Then she leaned closer, almost a bit too close for his liking. "I hope you don't mind my saying this too much, but… I'd be very interested in getting to know you better." He heard Ares scoff from outside the car. He realized that the war god had probably heard everything, much to his chagrin.

The Doctor saw her proposition for what it was. She had a motive, and he knew it wasn't just friendship.

So, he forced himself to meet her gaze, smiled slightly. He murmured, "My lady… I'm flattered, to be honest with you. But…"
Ignoring the warning bells in his head telling him that this was probably a bad move, he placed his hand on top of her own. "No matter how much you may resemble the woman I'm seeing right now… you're not her."

He had no idea how telepathy worked with immortals, but reasoned that if they could sense the emotions of mortals that weren't telepathic, they could sense thoughts and feelings sent in their direction. He did his best to project the memories of Rose that he thought were most important, along with the love he still felt for her. "You're quite beautiful, my lady. And you seem very kind. But I'm afraid I have to decline what you're offering."

Aphrodite gasped. "Oh," she murmured, her eyes widening in shock. "Oh, Doctor… I am so sorry. I wish there was something I could do."

"That's very kind of you to say," he replied. "But I'll be alright. Don't worry about me."

Aphrodite smiled sadly, and for some reason, it hurt less than the last time. "Well, if you insist. If you don't mind, I'd like to have a word with Percy now."

He nodded. "Of course." He turned toward the car door, but just before he opened it, Aphrodite stopped him. "Wait. I have one last question."

"Yes?" he said, turning to face her.

"Do you believe it was worth it? Suffering all that pain to see that she was happy?"

He didn't even hesitate before replying. "Of course. All I wanted was for her to be happy. I… I loved her. Still do."

Aphrodite nodded. "I know. You… take care, Doctor."

He nodded. "I will. Thank you, Aphrodite."

 When the Doctor got out of the car, the first thing Percy noticed was a dull look to his eyes, like someone had delivered a painful blow. He raised an eyebrow. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, I'm always okay," he replied easily. "She wants to see you now."

"Who? What happened? Why—"

"I'll explain later," the Doctor replied, giving him a firm look. "Just go talk to her."

 When Percy saw her, his jaw dropped.

He forgot his name. He forgot where he was. He forgot how to speak in complete sentences.

She was wearing a red satin dress and her hair was curled in a cascade of ringlets. Her face was the most beautiful he'd ever seen: perfect makeup, dazzling eyes, a smile that would've lit up the dark side of the moon.

Thinking back on it, he wouldn't be able to say who she looked like. Or even what color her hair or her eyes were. The goddess was ten times more beautiful than even the most beautiful actress he could think of. She had whatever his favorite hair color or eye color was.

When she smiled at Percy, just for a moment she looked like Annabeth. Then like a television actress he used to have a crush on in fifth grade. Then she changed again, and for the faintest heartbeat, she resembled the woman who used to check up on him ever since he was ten. Rose. He'd had a bit of a crush on her when he was around eleven, but it didn't last that long. Now, when he thought back on it, she seemed more like a mother or an older sister to him.

"Ah, there you are, Percy," the goddess said. "I am Aphrodite."

He slipped into the seat across from her and said something like, "Um uh gah."

She smiled. "Aren't you sweet. Hold this, please."

She handed him a polished mirror the size of a dinner plate and had Percy hold it up for her. She leaned forward and dabbed at her lipstick, though he couldn't see anything wrong with it.

"Do you know why you're here?" she asked.

Percy wanted to respond. Why couldn't he form a complete sentence? She was only a lady. A very beautiful lady. With eyes like pools of spring water…


He pinched his own arm, hard.

"I… I don't know," Percy managed.

"Oh, dear," Aphrodite said. "Still in denial?"

Outside the car, he could hear Ares chuckling. He had a feeling Ares could hear every word being said. The idea of him being out there made Percy angry, and that helped clear his mind.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.

"Well then, why are you on this quest?"

"Artemis has been captured!"

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Oh, Artemis. Please. Talk about a hopeless case. I mean, if they were going to kidnap a goddess, she should be breathtakingly beautiful, don't you think? I pity the poor dears who have to imprison Artemis. Bo-ring!"

"But she was chasing a monster," Percy protested. "A really, really bad monster. We have to find it!"

Aphrodite made him hold the mirror a little higher. She seemed to have found a microscopic problem at the corner of her eye and dabbed at her mascara. "Always some monster. But, my dear Percy, that is why the others are on this quest. I'm more interested in you."

Percy's heart pounded. He didn't want to answer, but her eyes drew an answer right out of his mouth. "Annabeth is in trouble."

Aphrodite beamed. "Exactly!"

"I have to help her," he said. "I've been having these dreams."

"Ah, you even dream about her! That's so cute!"

Percy's ears went red. "No! I mean… that's not what I meant."

She sighed. "Percy, I'm on your side. I'm the reason you're here, after all."

He stared at her blankly. "What?"

"The poisoned T-shirt the Stoll brothers gave Phoebe," she said. "Did you think that was an accident? Sending Blackjack to find you? Helping you sneak out of the camp?"

"You did that?"

"Of course! Because really, how boring these Hunters are! A quest for some monster, blah blah blah. Saving Artemis. Let her stay lost, I say. But a quest for true love—"

"Wait a second, I never said—"

"Oh, my dear. You don't need to say it. You do know Annabeth was close to joining the Hunters, don't you?"

Percy blushed, embarrassed. "I wasn't sure—"

"She was about to throw her life away! And you, my dear, can save her from that. It's so romantic!"


"Oh, put the mirror down," Aphrodite ordered. "I look fine."

Percy hadn't realized he was still holding it, but as soon as he put it down, he noticed his arms were sore.

"Now listen, Percy," Aphrodite said. "The Hunters are your enemies. Forget them and Artemis and the monster. That's not important. You just concentrate on finding and saving Annabeth."

"Do you know where she is?"

Aphrodite waved her hand irritably. "No, no. I leave the details to you. But it's been ages since we've had a good tragic love story."

"Whoa, first of all, I never said anything about love. And second, what's up with tragic?!"

"Love conquers all," Aphrodite promised. "Look at Helen and Paris. Did they let anything come between them?"

"Didn't they start the Trojan War and get thousands of people killed?"

"Pfft. That's not the point. Follow your heart."

"But… I don't know where it's going. My heart, I mean."

She smiled sympathetically. She really was beautiful, Percy realized. And not just because she had a pretty face. She believed in love so much, it was impossible not to feel giddy when she talked about it.

"Not knowing is half the fun," Aphrodite said. "Exquisitely painful, isn't it? Not being sure who you love and who loves you? Oh, you kids! It's so cute I'm going to cry!"

"No, no," Percy said quickly. "Don't do that."

Aphrodite sighed. "Of course, sometimes people lose those they care about. The Doctor… he lost someone very important to him, a long time ago. And he's still so… never mind. But if anything was to make me cry today, it'd be that. He's brokenhearted."

For an instant, Percy almost wanted to ask. But he stopped himself before he could. It was none of his business. If the Doctor wanted to talk about it, he would. But if he didn't, Percy would keep his mouth shut.

Then she smiled. "But that's beside the point. Don't worry— I'm not going to let this be easy and boring for you. No, I have some wonderful surprises in store. Anguish. Indecision. Oh, you just wait."

"That's really okay," Percy told her. "Don't go to any trouble."

"You're so cute. I wish all my daughters could break the heart of a boy as nice as you." Aphrodite's eyes were tearing up. "Now, you'd better go. And do be careful in my husband's territory, Percy. Don't take anything. He is awfully fussy about his trinkets and trash."

"What?" he asked. "You mean Hephaestus?"

Then the car door opened, and Ares grabbed his shoulder, pulling him out of the car and back into the desert night.

Percy's audience with the goddess of love was over.

 "You're lucky, punk." Ares pushed him away from the limo. "Be grateful."

"For what?"

"That we're being so nice. If it was up to me—"

"So why haven't you killed me?" Percy shot back. It was a stupid thing to say to the god of war, but being around him always made Percy feel angry and reckless.

Ares nodded, like he'd finally said something intelligent.

"I'd love to kill you, seriously," he said. "But see, I got a situation. Word on Olympus is that you might start the biggest war in history. I can't risk messing that up. Besides, Aphrodite thinks you're some kinda soap-opera star or something. I kill you, that makes me look bad with her. But don't worry. I haven't forgotten my promise. Someday soon, kid—real soon— you're going to raise your sword to fight, and you're going to remember the wrath of Ares."

The Doctor suddenly placed himself between them. "Why don't you threaten someone your own size?"

Percy was too impulsive to keep his mouth shut, especially now that there was a barrier between him and the war god. His hands balled into fists.

"Why wait? I beat you once. How's that ankle healing up?"

He grinned crookedly. "Not bad, punk. But you got nothing on the master of taunts. I'll start the fight when I'm good and ready. Until then… Get lost."

He snapped his fingers and the world did a three-sixty, spinning in a cloud of red dust. Percy and the Doctor both fell to the ground.

When they stood up again, the limousine was gone. The road, the taco restaurant, the whole town of Gila Claw was gone. Percy and his friends were standing in the middle of the junkyard, mountains of scrap metal stretched out in every direction.

 "What did she want with you guys?" Bianca asked, once the Doctor and Percy told them about Aphrodite.

"Oh, uh, not sure," Percy lied. "She said to be careful in her husband's junkyard. She said not to pick anything up."

Zoe narrowed her eyes. "The goddess of love would not make a special trip to tell thee that. Be careful, Percy. Aphrodite has led many heroes astray."

"For once I agree with Zoe," Thalia said. "You can't trust Aphrodite."

"What about you?" Bianca asked, glancing at the Doctor. "She talked to you, right? What did she want?"

The Doctor sighed. Percy thought back to the way that Ares had been muttering to himself when the Doctor had spoken to Aphrodite- he probably heard that conversation, too. What had gone on? Despite the fact he knew it was none of his beeswax, Percy couldn't help but be curious.

"Well, um…" To Percy's surprise, his face turned slightly red. He was… embarrassed? "How do I explain to a bunch of kids…" he said, half to himself. "She, er… expressed an interest in getting to know me." His face turned redder, and Percy suddenly felt bad for him, despite his amusement.

Thalia spoke next. She said, incredulous, "The goddess of love asked you out?"

"Something like that, yes," he replied, putting his hands in his pockets and looking at the ground.

Grover's ears pricked up. "Well, what did you say?"

The Doctor looked at him like he was an idiot. "I said no, obviously."

"Dude," Thalia said, her eyes wide, "you turned down a goddess. And not just any goddess, the goddess of love. How are you even alive right now?"

He sighed, shrugged. "Well, she understands that... I have my reasons."

Percy thought back to what Aphrodite had said- she'd called the Doctor brokenhearted. What had she meant by that? Was that why he'd turned her down?

He was broken from his thoughts when he noticed Grover giving him a funny look. Being empathic and all, he could usually read emotions, and Percy got the feeling he knew exactly what Aphrodite had talked to him about.

"So," Percy said, anxious to change the subject, "how do we get out of here?"

"That way," Zoe said, pointing. "That is west."

"How can you tell?"

In the light of the full moon, Percy was surprised how well he could see her roll her eyes at him. "Ursa Major is in the north," she said, "which means that must be west."

She pointed west, then at the northern constellation, which was hard to make out because there were so many other stars.

"Oh, yeah," Percy said. "The bear thing."

Zoe looked offended. "Show some respect. It was a fine bear. A worthy opponent."

"You act like it was real."

"Guys," Grover broke in. "Look!"

They'd reached the crest of a junk mountain. Piles of metal objects glinted in the moonlight: broken heads of bronze horses, metal legs from human statues, smashed chariots, tons of shields, swords, and other weapons, along with more modern things, like cars that gleamed gold and silver, refrigerators, washing machines, and computer monitors.

"Whoa," Bianca said. "That stuff… some of it looks like real gold."

"It is," the Doctor said grimly. "Like Percy said, don't touch anything. This is the junkyard of the gods."

"Junk?" Grover picked up a beautiful crown made of gold, silver, and jewels. It was broken on one side, as if it had been split by an axe. "You call this junk?"

He bit off a point and began to chew. "It's delicious!"

Thalia swatted the crown out of his hands. "He's serious!"

"Look!" Bianca said. She raced down the hill, tripping over bronze coils and golden plates. She picked up a bow that glowed silver in moonlight. "A Hunter's bow!"

She yelped in surprise as the bow began to shrink, and became a hair clip shaped like a crescent moon. "It's just like Percy's sword!"

Zoe's face was grim. "Leave it, Bianca."


"It is here for a reason. Anything thrown away in this junkyard must stay in this yard. It is defective. Or cursed."

Bianca reluctantly set the hair clip down.

"I don't like this place," Thalia said. She gripped the shaft of her spear.

"You think we're going to get attacked by killer refrigerators?" Percy asked.

She gave him a hard look. "Zoe is right, Percy. Things get thrown away here for a reason. Now come on, let's get across the yard."

"That's the second time you've agreed with Zoe," he muttered under his breath, but Thalia ignored Percy.

 They started picking through the hills and valleys of junk. The stuff seemed to go on forever, and if it hadn't been for Ursa Major, they would've gotten lost. All the hills looked about the same.

Percy noticed that the Doctor was lagging behind, never looking ahead of him. He seemed lost in thought. Percy slowed down, too, so that he could walk beside him.

"What happened?" he asked after a few minutes, breaking the silence. "If you don't wanna say anything, that's fine, but… something's bothering you. I had to ask."

He shrugged listlessly, sighed. "Aphrodite reminded me of something. What I thought was a scar is still very much an open wound. That can be a hard thing to face."

Percy nodded in understanding. "You sure you're okay?"

The Doctor chuckled. "You know, it's funny. She asked me the same thing." He sighed. "In truth… I don't know. But I have to try. Try to be okay. Usually that works."

Percy suddenly felt very, very bad for the Doctor. Whatever he'd gone through must've been pretty awful if he was being that cryptic about it. "Well, whatever it was… I'm sorry it happened to you."

"I'm not," the Doctor replied without hesitation. "Granted, I hate the way it ended, but I'd rather have what happened to me have a bad ending than never happen at all. I changed. Became a better person. I focus on that- not that it's over, but that it happened." Then he groaned. "Ugh, clichés are going to be the death of me."

Then in a much, much quieter voice that Percy could barely hear— and probably wasn't supposed to— the Doctor whispered three words.

"She hated clichés."

 As the group picked through the junkyard, Percy would've liked to say they left the stuff alone, but there was too much interesting junk not to check out some of it. Percy found an electric guitar shaped like Apollo's lyre that was so cool he had to pick it up. Grover found a broken tree made of metal. It had been chopped to pieces, but some of the branches still had golden birds in them, and they whirred around when Grover picked them up, trying to flap their wings. Even the Doctor seemed interested in some of the more technological scraps.

Finally, they saw the edge of the junkyard about half a mile ahead, the lights of a highway stretching through the desert. But between them and the road…

"What is that?" Bianca gasped.

Ahead of them was a hill much bigger and longer than the others. It was like a metal mesa, the length of a football field and as tall as goalposts. At one end of the mesa was a row of ten thick metal columns, wedged tightly together.

Bianca frowned. "They look like—"

"Toes," Grover said.

Bianca nodded. "Really, really large toes."

Zoe, Thalia, and the Doctor exchanged nervous looks.

"Let's go around," Thalia said. "Far around."

"But the road is right over there," Percy protested. "Quicker to climb over."


Thalia hefted her spear and Zoe drew her bow, but then I realized it was only Grover. He had thrown a piece of scrap metal at the toes and hit one, making a deep echo, as if the column were hollow.

"Why did you do that?" Zoe demanded.

Grover cringed. "I don't know. I, uh, don't like fake feet?"

"Come on." The Doctor looked at Percy. "Around."

He didn't argue. The toes were starting to freak him out, too. After all, who sculpted ten-foot-tall metal toes and stuck them in a junkyard?

After several minutes of walking, they finally stepped onto the highway, an abandoned but well-lit stretch of black asphalt.

"We made it out," Zoe said. "Thank the gods."

But apparently, the gods didn't want to be thanked. At that moment, the six heard a sound like a thousand trash compactors crushing metal.

Percy whirled around. Behind them, the scrap mountain was boiling, rising up. The ten toes tilted over, and then he realized why they looked like toes. They were toes. The thing that rose up from the metal was a bronze giant in full Greek battle armor. He was impossibly tall—a skyscraper with legs and arms. He gleamed wickedly in the moonlight. He looked down at them, and his face was deformed. The left side was partially melted off. His joints creaked with rust, and across his armored chest, written in thick dust by some giant finger, were the words WASH ME.

"Talos!" Zoe gasped.

"Who— who's Talos?" Percy stuttered.

"One of Hephaestus' creations," the Doctor said. "But that can't be the original. It's too small. A prototype, maybe. A defective model."

The metal giant didn't like the word defective.

He moved one hand to his sword belt and drew his weapon. The sound of it coming out of its sheath was horrible, metal screeching against metal. The blade was easily a hundred feet long. It looked rusty and dull, but Percy figured that didn't matter. Getting hit with that thing would be like getting hit with a battleship.

"Someone took something," Zoe said. "Who took something?"

She stared accusingly at Percy.

He shook his head. "I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a thief."

Bianca didn't say anything. Percy could've sworn she looked guilty, but didn't have much time to think about it, because the giant defective Talos took one step toward them, closing half the distance and making the ground shake.

"Run!" Grover yelped.

That would have been great advice if it wasn't hopeless. At a leisurely stroll, the thing could outdistance them easily.

"Doctor," Thalia said, her voice going high, "Anytime now. Do something!"

He pulled out his sonic, clicked the button a few times. Nothing happened. "Oh, bloody hell! Something's jammed it!"

They split up, the way they had with the Nemean Lion. Thalia drew her shield and held it up as she ran down the highway. The giant swung his sword and took out a row of power lines, which exploded in sparks and scattered across Thalia's path.

Zoe's arrows whistled toward the creature's face but shattered harmlessly against the metal. Grover brayed like a baby goat and went climbing up a mountain of metal.

Bianca, the Doctor, and Percy ended up next to each other, hiding behind a broken chariot.

"You took something," Percy said. "That bow."

"No!" she said, but her voice was quivering.

"Give it back!" he ordered. "Throw it down!"

"I… I didn't take the bow! Besides, it's too late."

The Doctor cut in then. "Bianca, what did you take?"

Before she could answer, they heard a massive creaking noise, and a shadow blotted out the sky.

"Move!" the Doctor shouted. Neither of them needed to be told twice.

Percy tore down the hill, Bianca and the Doctor right behind him, as the giant's foot smashed a crater in the ground where they'd been hiding.

"Hey, Talos!" Grover yelled, but the monster raised his sword, looking down at the three of them.

Grover played a quick melody on his pipes. Over at the highway, the downed power lines began to dance. Percy understood what Grover was going to do a split second before it happened. One of the poles with power lines still attached flew toward Talos' back leg and wrapped around his calf. The lines sparked and sent a jolt of electricity up the giant's backside.

Talos whirled around, creaking and sparking. Grover had bought them a few seconds.

"Come on!" the Doctor told Percy and Bianca. But the latter stayed frozen. From her pocket, she brought out a small metal figurine, a statue of a god. "It… it was for Nico. It was the only statue he didn't have."

"How can you think of Mythomagic at a time like this?" Percy said.

There were tears in her eyes.

"Throw it down," the Doctor murmured. "Maybe the giant will leave us alone."

She dropped it reluctantly, but nothing happened.

The giant kept coming after Grover. It stabbed its sword into a junk hill, missing Grover by a few feet, but scrap metal made an avalanche over him, and then Percy couldn't see him anymore.

"No!" Thalia yelled. She pointed her spear, and a blue arc of lightning shot out, hitting the monster in his rusty knee, which buckled. The giant collapsed, but it immediately started to rise again. It was hard to tell if it could feel anything. There weren't any emotions in its half-melted face, but Percy got the sense that it was about as ticked off as a twenty-story-tall metal warrior could be.

The Doctor tried to use his sonic screwdriver again, but it didn't work. "Deactivate the thing, you bloody—"

He raised his foot to stomp and Percy saw that his sole was treaded, like the bottom of a sneaker. There was a hole in his heel, like a large manhole, and there were red words painted around it, which he deciphered only after the foot came down: FOR MAINTENANCE ONLY.

"Crazy-idea time," Percy said.

Bianca and the Doctor looked at him nervously. "Anything," the former said.

He told them about the maintenance hatch. "There may be a way to control the thing. Switches or something. I'm going to get inside."

"How? You'll have to stand under its foot! You'll be crushed!"

"Distract it," Percy said. "I'll just have to time it right."

Bianca's jaw tightened. "No. I'll go."

The Doctor shook his head vehemently, protesting. "You can't! You'll die."

Bianca sighed. "It's my fault the monster came after us," she said. "It's my responsibility. Here." She picked up the little god statue and pressed it into the Doctor's hand. "If anything happens, give that to Nico. Tell him… tell him I'm sorry." Then she did something neither he nor Percy expected.

She wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him. "Thank you. For everything you've done to help us." Bianca pulled away, raising her chin to squarely meet his gaze. "You saved us more than once. Now, it's my turn to save you."

"Bianca, no!" they both yelled, but they couldn't stop her. She charged at the monster's left foot.

Thalia had its attention for the moment. She'd learned that the giant was big but slow. If she could stay close to it and not get smashed, she could run around it and stay alive. At least, it worked for the time being.

Bianca got right next to the giant's foot, trying to balance herself on the metal scraps that swayed and shifted with his weight.

Zoe yelled, "What are you doing?"

"Get it to raise its foot!" she said.

Zoe shot an arrow toward the monster's face and it flew straight into one nostril. The giant straightened and shook its head.

"Hey, Junk Boy!" Percy yelled. "Down here."

He ran up to its big toe and stabbed it with Riptide. The magic blade cut a gash in the bronze.

Unfortunately, Percy's plan worked. Talos looked down at him and raised his foot to squash the demigod like a bug. He didn't see what Bianca was doing, since he had to turn and run. The foot came down about two inches behind him and I was knocked into the air. He hit something hard and sat up, dazed. He'd been thrown into a refrigerator. The Doctor yelled his name and started running toward him.

When the monster was about to finish Percy off, Grover somehow dug himself out of the junk pile. He played his pipes frantically, and his music sent another power line pole whacking against Talos' thigh. The monster turned. Grover should've run, but he must've been too exhausted from the effort of so much magic. He took two steps, fell, and didn't get back up.

"Grover!" Thalia, the Doctor, and Percy all ran toward him, but Percy knew they'd be too late.

The monster raised his sword to smash Grover. Then he froze.

Talos cocked his head to one side, like he was hearing strange new music. He started moving his arms and legs in weird ways, like a crazed dance. He made a fist and punched himself in the face.

"Go, Bianca!" Percy yelled.

Zoe looked horrified. "She is inside?"

"Come on, Bianca…" the Doctor muttered nervously. "You can do this."

The monster staggered around, and Percy realized they were still in danger. He, Thalia, and the Doctor grabbed Grover and ran with him toward the highway. Zoe was already ahead of them. She yelled, "How will Bianca get out?"

The giant hit itself in the head again and dropped his sword. A shudder ran through his whole body and he staggered toward the power lines.

"Look out!" Percy yelled, but it was too late.

The giant's ankle snared the lines, and blue flickers of electricity shot up his body. Percy hoped the inside was insulated. He had no idea what was going on in there. The giant careened back into the junkyard, and his right hand fell off, landing in the scrap metal with a horrible CLANG!

His left arm came loose, too. He was falling apart at the joints.

Talos began to run.

"Wait!" Zoe yelled. They ran after him, but there was no way they could keep up. Pieces of the robot kept falling off, getting in the way.

The giant crumbled from the top down: his head, his chest, and finally, his legs collapsed. When they reached the wreckage, all of them searched frantically, yelling Bianca's name. They crawled around in the vast hollow pieces and the legs and the head. They searched until the sun started to rise, but had no luck.

Zoe collapsed onto the ground beside the Doctor and Grover, weeping. Percy was stunned to see her cry. The Doctor bent down to her level and held out one arm. To Percy's amazement, Zoe collapsed into his chest, sobbing. The Doctor murmured something to her, but Percy didn't hear what it was.

Thalia yelled in rage and impaled her sword in the giant's smashed face.

Percy walked over to them, sat down by Grover, and sighed. "We can keep searching," he said. "It's light now. We'll find her."

"No, we won't," Grover said miserably. "It happened just as it was supposed to."

"What are you talking about?" Percy demanded.

The Doctor answered that time, forcing Percy to momentarily look at the face of the weeping girl he was comforting. Silent tears were streaming down the Doctor's face. That was almost more unsettling than Zoe's pained sobbing. "The prophecy," he whispered softly. "'One shall be lost in the land without rain'."

His breath shuddered. "This wasn't supposed to happen. It was supposed to be me. Not… not her."

Percy shut his eyes, wracked with guilt. Why hadn't he seen it? Why had he let her go instead of him?

They were in the middle of the desert. And Bianca di Angelo was gone.

Chapter Text

At the edge of the dump, they found a tow truck so old it might've been thrown away itself. But the engine started, and it had a full tank of gas, so they decided to borrow it.

Thalia drove. She didn't seem as stunned as Zoe, Grover, the Doctor, or Percy. Despite what he had said earlier, the Doctor didn't protest when Thalia volunteered to drive the truck.

"The skeletons are still out there," she'd reminded them. "We need to keep moving."

She navigated through the desert, under clear blue skies, the sand so bright it hurt to look at. Zoe sat up front with Thalia. Grover, the Doctor, and Percy sat in the pickup bed, leaning against the tow winch. The air was cool and dry, but the nice weather seemed like an insult after losing Bianca.

Percy kept his gaze on the Doctor, who had his hand closed around the little figurine that had cost Bianca her life. Percy hadn't even been able to tell what god it was supposed to be. Nico would know.

What was he going to tell Nico? He had a feeling the Doctor was thinking the same thing— they had both promised to do their best to keep Bianca safe.

Percy wanted to believe that Bianca was still alive somewhere. But he had a bad feeling that she was gone for good.

"It should've been me," he said flatly. "I should've gone into the giant."

"Don't say that!" Grover panicked. "It's bad enough Annabeth is gone, and now Bianca. Do you think I could stand it if—" He sniffled. "Do you think anybody else would be my best friend?"

Percy sighed. "Grover…"

The Doctor closed his eyes, exhaled heavily. "Why not me?" he murmured, half to himself. "It was supposed to be me."

That was the first thing he'd said since Bianca died and Zoe had collapsed at the junkyard. Percy had been wary of speaking to him, since one look at his face gave away sheer raw guilt. He hadn't wanted to risk making the Doctor feel worse.

Grover wiped under his eyes with an oily cloth that left his face grimy, like he had on war paint. "I'm… I'm okay."

But Percy knew his friend wasn't okay. Ever since the encounter in New Mexico— whatever had happened when that wild wind blew through— he seemed really fragile, even more emotional than usual. Percy was afraid to talk to him about it, because chances are Grover would start bawling.

There was, however, one good thing about having friends who got freaked out more than Percy did. He realized he couldn't stay depressed. He had to set aside thinking about Bianca and keep everyone going forward, the way Thalia was doing. Absently, he wondered what she and Zoe were talking about in the front of the truck.

 The tow truck ran out of gas at the edge of a river canyon. That was just as well, because the road dead-ended.

Thalia got out and slammed the door. Immediately, one of the tires blew. "Great. What now?"

Percy scanned the horizon. There wasn't much to see. Desert in all directions, occasional clumps of barren mountains here and there. The canyon was the only thing interesting. The river itself wasn't very big, maybe fifty yards across, green water with a few rapids, but it carved a huge scar out of the desert. The rock cliffs dropped away below them.

"There's a path," Grover said. "We could get to the river."

Percy tried to see what he was talking about, and finally noticed a tiny ledge winding down the cliff face. "That's a goat path," he said.

"So?" Grover asked.

"The rest of us aren't goats."

"We can make it," Grover said. "I think."

Percy thought about that. He'd done cliffs before, but didn't like them. Then he looked over at Thalia and saw how pale she'd gotten. Her problem with heights… she'd never be able to do it. One look at the Doctor's face told him that they were both thinking the same thing.

"No," Percy said. "I, uh, think we should go farther upstream."

Grover tried to protest. "But—"

"Come on," Percy said. "A walk won't hurt us."

Then he glanced at Thalia. Her eyes said a quick Thank you.

They followed the river about half a mile before coming to an easier slope that led down to the water. On the shore was a canoe rental operation that was closed for the season, but Percy left a stack of golden drachmas on the counter and a note saying IOU two canoes.

"We need to go upstream," Zoe said. It was the first time Percy had heard her speak since the junkyard, and he was worried about how bad she sounded, like someone with the flu. "The rapids are too swift."

"Leave that to me," Percy said. They put the canoes in the water.

Thalia pulled him and the Doctor aside as they were getting the oars. "Thanks for back there."

"Don't mention it," Percy replied, and the Doctor nodded in agreement. "Yeah, don't worry."

"Can you really…" She nodded to the rapids. "You know."

Percy nodded. "I think so. Usually I'm good with water."

"Would you two take Zoe?" she asked. "I think, ah, maybe you can talk to her."

"She's not going to like that," the Doctor cut in.

"Please? I don't know if I can stand being in the same boat with her. She's… she's starting to worry me."

It was about the last thing Percy wanted to do, but he nodded.

Thalia's shoulders relaxed. "I owe you guys one."

"Two," Percy shot back, smirking.

"One and a half."

Thalia smiled, and for a second, Percy remembered that he actually liked her when she wasn't yelling at him. She turned and helped Grover get their canoe into the water.

As it turned out, Percy didn't even need to control the currents. As soon as they got in the river, he looked over the edge of the boat and found a couple of naiads staring at him.

They looked like regular teenage girls, except for the fact that they were underwater.

Hey, Percy said.

They made a bubbling sound that may have been giggling. Percy wasn't sure. He had a hard time understanding naiads.

We're heading upstream, he told them. Do you think you could—

Before Percy could even finish, the naiads each chose a canoe and began pushing them up the river. They started so fast Grover fell into his canoe with his hooves sticking up in the air.

"I hate naiads," Zoe grumbled.

A stream of water squirted up from the back of the boat and hit Zoe in the face.

"She-devils!" Zoe went for her bow.

"Whoa," the Doctor cut in, holding up one hand in a placating manner. "They're just playing."

"Cursed water spirits. They've never forgiven me."

"Forgiven you for what?" Percy asked.

She slung her bow back over her shoulder. "It was a long time ago. Never mind."

They sped up the river, the cliffs looming up on either side of them.

Percy sighed, glanced at Zoe. "What happened to Bianca wasn't your fault," he told her. "It was my fault. I let her go."

He figured that would give Zoe an excuse to start yelling at him. At least that might shake her out of feeling depressed.

Instead, her shoulders slumped. "No, Percy. I pushed her into going on the quest. I was too anxious. She was a powerful half-blood. She had a kind heart, as well. I… I thought she would be the next lieutenant."

"But you're the lieutenant," he argued, confused.

She gripped the strap of her quiver. She looked more tired than Percy had ever seen her. "Nothing can last forever, Percy. Over two thousand years I have led the Hunt, and my wisdom has not improved. Now Artemis herself is in danger."

"Look, you can't blame yourself for that."

"If I had insisted on going with her—"

"You think you could've fought something powerful enough to kidnap Artemis? There's nothing you could have done."

Zoe didn't answer.

That was when the Doctor spoke up. "Look…" he paused, exhaled heavily. "Maybe I could've stopped her. I certainly could've tried harder. But… Bianca had made up her mind. It was her decision. Granted, it should have been me, but no one forced Bianca to do what she did. No one is to blame for her deciding to sacrifice herself. The only thing we can do now is make that sacrifice mean something. She died to keep us alive, so we should do whatever we can to finish what we started."

Zoe sighed. "No matter who is to blame… she was brave."

 The cliffs along the river grew taller. Long shadows fell across the water, making it a lot colder, even though the day was bright.

Without thinking about it, Percy took Riptide out of his pocket. Zoe looked at the pen, and her expression grew pained.

"You made this," he said.

"Who told thee?"

"I had a dream about it."

She studied Percy. He was sure she was going to call him crazy, but she just sighed. "It was a gift. And a mistake."

"Who was the hero?" he asked.

Zoe shook her head. "Do not make me say his name. I swore never to speak it again." The Doctor glanced at her sympathetically, but she turned away.

"You act like I should know him," Percy added, and she turned back to face him and sighed.

"I am sure you do, hero. Don't all you boys want to be just like him?"

Her voice was so bitter, Percy decided not to ask what she meant. He looked down at Riptide, and for the first time, wondered if it was cursed.

"Your mother was a water goddess?" he asked.

"Yes, Pleione. She had five daughters. My sisters and I. The Hesperides."

"Those were the girls who lived in a garden at the edge of the West. With the golden apple tree and a dragon guarding it."

"Yes," Zoe said wistfully. "Ladon."

"But weren't there only four sisters'?"

"There are now. I was exiled. Forgotten. Blotted out as if I never existed."


Zoe pointed to the pen. "Because I betrayed my family and helped a hero. You won't find that in the legend, either. He never spoke of me. After his direct assault on Ladon failed, I gave him the idea of how to steal the apples, how to trick my father. But he took all the credit."


Gurgle, gurgle, the naiad suddenly spoke in Percy's mind. The canoe was slowing down.

He looked ahead and saw why.

That was as far as the naiads could take them. The river was blocked. A dam the size of a football stadium stood in their path.

 "Hoover Dam," Thalia breathed. "It's huge."

They stood at the river's edge, looking up at a curve of concrete that loomed between the cliffs. People walked along the top of the dam. They were so tiny they looked like fleas.

The naiads had left with a lot of grumbling— not in words Percy could understand, but it was obvious they hated the dam blocking up their river. The canoes floated back downstream, swirling in the wake from the dam's discharge vents.

"Seven hundred feet tall," Percy said. "Built in the 1930s."

"Five million cubic acres of water," Thalia said.

Grover sighed. "Largest construction project in the United States."

Zoe stared at them in shock. "How do you know all that?"

"Annabeth," Percy replied without hesitation. "She liked architecture."

"She was nuts about monuments," Thalia added.

"Spouted facts all the time." Grover sniffled. "So annoying."

"I wish she were here," Percy said, sighing. The Doctor nodded in agreement, his eyes darkening with sadness. "So do I, Percy," he murmured. "I miss Annabeth."

The others nodded. Zoe was still looking at them strangely, but Percy didn't care. It seemed like a cruel joke that they'd come to Hoover Dam, one of Annabeth's personal favorites, and she wasn't there to see it.

"We should go up there," he said. "For her sake. Just to say we've been."

"You are mad," Zoe decided, huffing. "But that's where the road is." She pointed to a huge parking garage next to the top of the dam. "And so, sightseeing it is."

 They had to walk for almost an hour before finding a path that led up to the road. It came up on the east side of the river. Then they stumbled back toward the dam. It was cold and windy on top. On one side, a big lake spread out, ringed by barren desert mountains. On the other side, the dam dropped away like the world's most dangerous skateboard ramp, down to the river seven hundred feet below, and water that churned from the dam's vents.

Thalia walked in the middle of the road, far away from the edges. Grover kept sniffing the wind and looking nervous. He didn't say anything, but Percy knew he smelled monsters.

"How close are they?" he asked Grover.

He shook his head. "Maybe not close. The wind on the dam, the desert all around us… the scent can probably carry for miles. But it's coming from several directions. I don't like that."

Percy didn't either. It was already Wednesday, only two days until the winter solstice, and they still had a long way to go. They didn't need any more monsters.

The Doctor fiddled with his screwdriver, pushing buttons and flipping tiny switches, a look of intense concentration on his face. He was wearing a pair of round glasses and muttering distractedly. "Okay, I think I see the problem. And… ah-ha!"

"There's a snack bar in the visitor center," Thalia said, ignoring him.

"You've been here before?" Percy asked.

"Once. To see the guardians." She pointed to the far end of the dam. Carved into the side of the cliff was a little plaza with two big bronze statues. To Percy, they almost looked like Oscar statues with wings.

"They were dedicated to Zeus when the dam was built," Thalia said. "A gift from Athena."

Tourists were clustered all around them. They seemed to be looking at the statues' feet.

"What are they doing?" Percy asked.

"Rubbing the toes," Thalia explained. "They think it's good luck."


She shrugged. "Mortals get crazy ideas. They don't know the statues are sacred to Zeus, but they know there's something special about them."

"When you were here last, did they talk to you or anything?"

Thalia's expression darkened. Percy could tell that she'd come here before hoping for exactly that— some kind of sign from her father. Some connection. "No. They don't do anything. They're just big metal statues."

Then he thought about the last big metal statue they'd run into. That hadn't gone so well. But he decided not to bring it up.

"Let us find the dam snack bar," Zoe said. "We should eat while we can."

The corners of Grover's mouth twitched. "The dam snack bar?"

Zoe blinked. "Yes. What is funny?"

"Nothing," Grover said, trying to keep a straight face. "I could use some dam french fries."

Thalia let out a snort. Even the Doctor cracked a smile. "That's very mature," he said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "Go on, cut it out."

Maybe it was because he was so tired and strung out emotionally, but Percy started cracking up. Thalia and Grover joined in, while Zoe just stared blankly. "I do not understand."

"Seriously, you lot, stop laughing," the Doctor cut in, but Percy could tell it was taking real effort on his part not to burst out laughing, too. He was probably just as strung out as they were.
He bit his lip. "You're confusing Zoe."

One look at the Hunter's perplexed face was enough to make Percy laugh even more. He probably could've kept laughing all day, but then he heard a noise.


The smile melted off his face. Percy wondered if the noise was just in his head, but Grover had stopped laughing, too. The Doctor's demeanor had shifted as well— much like Grover, he was looking around, confused. "Did I just hear… a cow?" the Doctor asked. "I could've sworn I heard a cow."

"A dam cow?" Thalia laughed.

"No," he said. "I'm serious."

Zoe listened. "I hear nothing."

Thalia looked back and forth between the two of them. "Percy, Doctor… you guys okay?"

Percy spoke before the Doctor could. "Yeah," he said. "You guys go ahead. I'll be right in."

"What's wrong?" Grover asked.

"Nothing," I said. "I… I just need a minute. To think."

The three of them— minus the Doctor— hesitated, but Percy supposed he must've looked pretty upset because they finally went into the visitor center without him. Then Percy focused on the Doctor. "You too, Doc. Go on."

"First of all, don't call me 'Doc'. Just don't. Second, I have a feeling you know exactly what that noise was about. I'm staying here. I don't know what's going on, and I really don't like not knowing. Whatever it is, you can—"

"Fine," Percy said, interrupting him. "Just… stop talking and come with me."

Without waiting for an answer, Percy jogged to the north edge of the dam and looked over.


She was about thirty feet below in the lake, but he could see her clearly: his friend from Long Island Sound, Bessie the cow serpent. The Doctor stood beside him, peering down into the water. "Is that—"

Percy didn't let him finish. He leaned down and spoke to the cow serpent. "What are you doing here?"


Her voice was urgent, like she was trying to warn him of something. The Doctor seemed to agree. "I think that was a warning, Percy."

"How did you get here?" Percy asked her. They were thousands of miles from Long Island, hundreds of miles inland. There was no way Bessie could've swum all the way to the Hoover Dam. And yet, here she was.

Bessie swam in a circle and butted her head against the side of the dam. "Moo!"

"She wants you to come with her," the Doctor said. "At least, I think that's what—"

"I can't," Percy told her. "My friends are inside."

She looked at him with her sad brown eyes. Then she gave one more urgent "Mooo!", did a flip, and disappeared into the water.

"Something's wrong," the Doctor murmured gravely. "She said that much, I know that."

Percy tensed. The hairs on his arms bristled. He looked down the dam road to the east and saw two men walking slowly toward him. They wore gray camouflage outfits that flickered over skeletal bodies.

They passed through a group of kids and pushed them aside. A kid yelled, "Hey!" One of the warriors turned, his face changing momentarily into a skull.

"Ah!" the kid yelled, and his whole group backed away.

"Oh, boy," the Doctor said to himself. "Here we go again."

"Can't you disintegrate them?" Percy asked. "The way you did last time?"

He looked unsure. "I could, but it works best at close range. And there's a lot of people here. That can destabilize things. I could end up targeting one of them by accident instead, and that would not be good. How do you explain to someone that you just turned a human to—"

"Never mind," Percy cut in. "What should we do, then?"

The Doctor grinned, making Percy feel uneasy. He was certain the Doctor was kind and mostly a good person, but there were certain times he'd questioned the man's sanity. This was one of those times.

Then he said "Run, obviously," breaking Percy from his thoughts. "Come on." They both ran for the visitor center.

They were almost to the stairs when Percy heard tires squeal. On the west side of the dam, a black van swerved to a stop in the middle of the road, nearly plowing into some old people.

The van doors opened, and more skeleton warriors piled out. They were surrounded.

They bolted down the stairs and through the museum entrance. The security guard at the metal detector yelled, "Hey, get back here!" But neither of them stopped.

Percy and the Doctor ran through the exhibits and ducked behind a tour group. Percy looked for his friends, but couldn't see them anywhere. Where had they gone?

"Stop!" The metal-detector guy yelled.

There was no place to go but into an elevator with the tour group. They ducked inside just as the door closed.

"We'll be going down seven hundred feet," the tour guide said cheerfully. She was a park ranger, with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail and tinted glasses. Somehow, she hadn't noticed that they were being chased. "Don't worry, ladies and gentlemen, the elevator hardly ever breaks."

"Does this go to the snack bar?" Percy asked her.

A few people behind him chuckled. The tour guide looked at him. Something about her gaze made his skin tingle. The Doctor tilted his head in confusion, studying the woman, then his eyes widened. "My God…" he breathed. Percy didn't have time to ask him why he looked so surprised, because the tour guide spoke again.

"To the turbines, young man," she said. "Weren't you listening to my fascinating presentation upstairs?"

"Oh, uh, sure. Is there another way out of the dam?"

"It's a dead end," a tourist behind them said, exasperated. "For heaven's sake. The only way out is the other elevator."

The doors opened.

"Go right ahead, folks," the tour guide told them. "Another ranger is waiting for you at the end of the corridor."

Neither of them had much choice but to go with the group.

"And, you two," the tour guide called. Percy and the Doctor looked back. She'd taken off her glasses. Her eyes were startlingly gray, like storm clouds. "There is always a way out for those clever enough to find it." Her gaze shifted slightly to the right of Percy, where the Doctor was standing. "You should know that better than anyone… Doctor."

The doors closed with the tour guide still inside, leaving them alone.

Percy's mind spun with questions. "Who was that? How did she know you? How did she know we were here?"

Before the Doctor could answer any of those questions, a ding came from around the corner. The second elevator was opening, and Percy heard an unmistakable sound— the clattering of skeleton teeth.

"Do something," Percy begged. "Please, for the love of—"

"I'm trying!" the other man shouted. "My screwdriver is very, very old, and it doesn't always work properly. Now, are we going to run for our lives or not?"

In answer, Percy took off after the tour group.

He ran through a tunnel carved out of solid rock, and could tell from the sound of footsteps that the Doctor was behind him. The tunnel seemed to go on forever. The walls were moist, and the air hummed with electricity and the roar of water. They came out onto a U-shaped balcony that overlooked a huge warehouse area. Fifty feet below, enormous turbines were running. It was a big room, but Percy didn't see any other exit unless he wanted to jump into the turbines and get churned up to make electricity. Which, of course, he didn't.

Another tour guide was talking over the microphone, telling the tourists about water supplies in Nevada. Percy prayed that Thalia, Zoe, and Grover were okay. They might already be captured, or eating at the snack bar, completely unaware that they were being surrounded.

"Come on, this way," the Doctor said, beckoning with his arm. "Maybe we can lose them while I think of something."

They worked their way around the crowd, trying not to be too obvious about it. There was a hallway at the other side of the balcony— maybe someplace to hide. Percy kept his hand on Riptide, ready to strike.

By the time they got to the opposite side of the balcony, Percy's nerves were shot. They backed into the little hallway and watched the tunnel they had come from.

Then Percy heard a sharp Chhh! like the voice of a skeleton.

Without thinking, he uncapped Riptide and spun, slashing with the sword.

The girl he'd just tried to slice in half yelped and dropped her Kleenex.

"Oh my god,'" she shouted. "Do you always kill people when they blow their nose?"

The first thing that went through Percy's head was that the sword hadn't hurt her. It had passed clean through her body, harmlessly. "You're mortal!" Percy glanced to the side momentarily and saw that the Doctor was also staring at the girl in shock.

She looked at them in disbelief. "What's that supposed to mean? Of course I'm mortal! How did you get that sword past security?"

"I didn't— Wait, you can see it's a sword?"

The girl rolled her eyes, which were green, like Percy's. She had frizzy reddish-brown hair. Her nose was also red, like she had a cold. She wore a big maroon Harvard sweatshirt and jeans that were covered with marker stains and little holes, like she spent her free time poking them with a fork.

"Well, it's either a sword or the biggest toothpick in the world," she said with a huff. "And why didn't it hurt me? I mean, not that I'm complaining. Who are you guys? And… whoa, what is that you're wearing? Is that made of lion fur?"

She asked so many questions so fast, it was like she was throwing rocks at Percy. He couldn't think of what to say. He looked at his sleeves to see if the Nemean Lion pelt had somehow changed back to fur, but it still looked like a brown winter coat to him. "Um…"

That was when the Doctor cut in, rescuing Percy from having to decide how to handle things. "Sorry, but who are you?"

She huffed indignantly. "Rachel Elizabeth Dare. Now, are you going to answer my questions, or should I scream for security?"

"No, please don't do that," he replied. "We're kind of in a hurry. In trouble."

"In a hurry or in trouble?"

"Um, sort of both."

She looked over his shoulder and her eyes widened. "Bathroom!"

"What?" Percy finally said, confused.

"Bathroom! Behind me! Both of you! Now!"

Both of them listened to her. They slipped inside the restroom and left Rachel Elizabeth Dare standing outside. Later, that seemed cowardly to them, but it also saved their lives.

They heard the clattering, hissing sounds of skeletons as they came closer.

Percy's grip tightened on Riptide. What was he thinking? He'd left a mortal girl out there to die. He was preparing to burst out and fight despite the warning look the Doctor was giving him when Rachel Elizabeth Dare started talking in that rapid-fire machine gun way of hers.

"Oh my god! Did you see that kid? It's about time you got here. He tried to kill me! He had a sword, for god's sake. You security guys let a sword-swinging lunatic inside a national landmark? I mean, jeez! He and his friend ran that way toward those turbine thingies. I think they went over the side or something. Maybe they fell."

The skeletons clattered excitedly. Percy heard them moving off.

Rachel opened the door. "All clear. But you'd better hurry."

She looked shaken. Her face was gray and sweaty.

They peeked around the corner. Three skeleton warriors were running toward the other end of the balcony. The way to the elevator was clear for a few seconds.

The Doctor stepped outside first and grinned at her. "We owe you one, Rachel Elizabeth Dare."

"What are those things?" she asked. "They looked like—"

"Skeletons?" he finished for her. She nodded uneasily.

"Do yourself a favor," the Doctor said. "Forget about it. Forget you ever saw us."

"Forget that your friend tried to kill me?" she said, raising a brow at Percy.

"Yeah. That, too."

"But who are you?"

"I'm the Doctor," he replied.

Rachel's eyes widened. "Why in the world do you have a code name?"

"Not important," he answered. Percy spoke up then.

"My name's Percy—" he started to say. Then the skeletons turned around. "Gotta go!"

"What kind of name is Percy Gotta-go?"

Neither of them answered her as they bolted for the exit.

 The cafe was packed with kids enjoying their lunches. Thalia, Zoe, and Grover were just sitting down with their food.

"We need to leave," the Doctor said. For some reason, he didn't sound winded. "Now!"

"But we just got our burritos!" Thalia protested.
Zoe stood up, muttering an Ancient Greek curse. "He's right! Look."

The cafe windows wrapped all the way around the observation floor, which provided a beautiful panoramic view of the skeletal army that had come to kill them.

Percy counted two on the east side of the road, blocking the way to Arizona. Three more on the west side, guarding Nevada. All of them were armed with batons and pistols.

But the immediate problem was a lot closer. The three skeletal warriors who'd been chasing him and the Doctor in the turbine room now appeared on the stairs. They saw Percy from across the cafeteria and clattered their teeth.

"Elevator!" Grover yelled. They bolted that direction, but the doors opened with a pleasant ding, and three more warriors stepped out. Every warrior was accounted for, minus the small group the Doctor had disintegrated in New Mexico. They were completely surrounded. Even the Doctor seemed close to panicking as he rummaged through his jacket pockets. "Where the bloody hell is my screwdriver?"

Then Grover had a brilliant, completely Grover-like idea.

"Burrito fight!" he yelled, flinging his Guacamole Grande at the nearest skeleton.

Grover's lunch hit the skeleton and knocked his skull clean off his shoulders. Percy wasn't sure what the other kids in the cafe saw, but they went crazy and started throwing their burritos and baskets of chips and sodas at each other, shrieking and screaming.

The skeletons tried to aim their guns, but it was hopeless. Bodies and food and drinks were flying everywhere.

In the chaos, Thalia and Percy tackled the other two skeletons on the stairs and sent them flying into the condiment table. Then all five of them raced downstairs, various food items whizzing past their heads.

"What now?" Grover asked as they burst outside.

Percy didn't have an answer, and for once, neither did the Doctor. The warriors on the road were closing in from either direction. They ran across the street to the pavilion with the winged bronze statues, but that just put their backs to the mountain.

The skeletons moved forward, forming a crescent around them. Their brethren from the cafe were running up to join them. One was still putting its skull back on its shoulders. Another was covered in ketchup and mustard. Two more had burritos lodged in their rib cages. They didn't look happy about it. They drew batons and advanced.

"Five against eleven," Zoe muttered. "And they cannot die."

"It's been nice adventuring with you guys," Grover said, his voice trembling.

The Doctor shook his head, glanced at Percy. "Remember what Athena said," he exclaimed. "There's always a way out if you can find it."

Percy nodded in agreement, then it hit him what the Doctor had just said. "Wait, that was Athena?"

"No time," he shot back. "I have a completely insane idea, if only I can just…" He started pressing buttons on his screwdriver at an alarmingly fast rate.

Something shiny caught the corner of Percy's eye. He glanced behind him at the statue's feet. "Whoa," he said. "Their toes are really bright."

"Percy!" Thalia hissed. "This isn't the time."

But he couldn't help staring at the two giant bronze statues with tall bladed wings like letter openers. They were weathered brown except for their toes, which shone like new pennies, from all the times people had rubbed them for good luck.

Good luck. The blessing of Zeus.

Percy thought about the tour guide in the elevator, who was supposedly Athena. She had told them that there was always a way out.

"Thalia," he said. "Pray to your dad."

She glared at him. "He never answers."

"Just this once," Percy pleaded. "Ask for help. I think… I think the statues can give us some luck."

Six skeletons raised their guns. The other five came forward with batons. Fifty feet away. Forty feet.

"Do it!" he yelled.

"No!" Thalia said. "He won't answer me."

"This time is different!"

"Who says?"

He hesitated. "Athena, according to the Doctor." The aforementioned man ignored him, still fiddling with his screwdriver.

Thalia scowled like she was sure Percy had gone crazy.

"Try it," Grover pleaded.

Thalia closed her eyes. Her lips moved in a silent prayer. Percy put in his own prayer to Annabeth's mom, hoping that he and the Doctor were right— that it had been her in that elevator, and that she was trying to help them save her daughter.

Nothing happened.

The skeletons closed in. Percy raised Riptide to defend himself. Thalia held up her shield. Zoe pushed Grover behind her and aimed an arrow at a skeleton's head.

Then, suddenly, a spark of electricity shot out from the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, zapping him in the hand. He yelped in pain and dropped it onto the ground. That was when the noise started.

An all-too-familiar harsh wheezing, groaning sound, like an old car engine that was dying out. An image started flickering in and out of view— a blue phone booth.

A phone booth?

Three of the skeletons moved too late. They were crushed as the phone booth completely materialized, landing on the ground with a soft thump. Then came a powerful wind, sweeping away the rest of the skeleton warriors. They weren't dead, but were taken far away enough to give them time.

To do what, exactly? Percy wondered.

The Doctor seemed to know— that was a real shocker. He raced over to the phone booth and pulled out a key, the metal glinting silver in the sunlight. The lock clicked open, and the doors swung wide.

Despite the fact there was a large band of skeletons trying to kill them, Percy and his friends were suddenly frozen where they stood, since what was before their eyes should have been impossible. Only Zoe didn't seem that fazed, though she still seemed surprised.

Instead of the tiny interior of a phone booth, a vast room stretched before them. Poles and lights stuck out from the walls. Staircases spiraled. Something sat in the center of the room- an object almost shaped like a mushroom at the bottom, but turned into a cylinder as it went all the way up to the ceiling.

Then the Doctor's shouting broke them from their trance. "Don't just stand there gaping, get inside!"

They didn't need to be told twice. All five of them bolted inside the phone booth, and the Doctor slammed the door behind them.

Chapter Text

The Doctor raced around the strange mushroom-shaped object, which Percy now realized was some sort of control console, covered in levers and buttons. He pulled and pushed so many switches, buttons, and dials so quickly that it was impossible to follow his movements.

He muttered things under his breath like "passage of time" and "distance" and "San Francisco".

Everyone else wandered around in loopy circles, taking in the interior. "What is this place?" Thalia asked, looking at the Doctor.

He didn't answer her right away, as he pulled a large switch and slammed his hand down on the console. "Come on, girl, don't fail me now…" he said to himself. Then he looked over at Thalia. "I suggest you hang on to something, all of you. Because flight can be a bit dodgy."

"Flight?" Thalia's face paled.

"Don't worry, you won't feel it," he replied easily. "The room just tends to—"

He was cut off when the entire room shook violently. Grover screamed and toppled to one side. Percy fell over backwards, landed on his back. Thalia and Zoe managed to grab onto poles, so they stayed upright. The Doctor had a grip on the console, so the tremor hadn't affected him, either.

"Right," he said, flustered. "As I was saying, the room tends to shake. Like what just happened. Speaking of which, you guys okay?"

Percy groaned, sat up. Grover had already jumped to his feet.

"I'm fine," the former got out. "I just hit my back. Ow."

The phone booth kept making that harsh wheezing sound, and the room shook more than once. Finally, though, the box landed with a soft thud, and everything went still. "There!" the Doctor said brightly. "We should be in San Francisco now. But if you want to take a moment, that's fine."

Thalia gave him a firm look. "Are you gonna answer my question now, pretty boy? What the heck is this thing?"

He grinned. "Simply put, this is my home. I live here."

Thalia raised an eyebrow. "Not what I meant. How is this—" she gestured around the room, "even possible? It's bigger on the inside."

"Oh, I love it when they say that," he exclaimed. "Well, Thalia Grace, you're looking at a very advanced form of technology. The inside is actually another dimension. That's how the interior can be much larger than the exterior."

"That sounds like something from a sci-fi movie," Percy said, smirking. "Is this, like, a spaceship or something?"

The Doctor walked out from behind the console, grinning. "Even better. Spaceship and time machine."

"Sorry… say what?" Thalia piped up. "Did you just say this thing was a time machine? You're crazy."

"No, I'm not," he replied, shaking his head. "The TARDIS is quite capable of both space and time travel. It's what she was designed for. Now, I believe we have a…" he trailed off when he saw Zoe staring up at the ceiling, mystified. "You alright there, Zoe?"

"Lady Artemis spoke of this place," she murmured. "She called it a vast machine, but said that thee spoke of it as if it were alive. You treated it like a living being. She also said that… that thee showed her faraway places. The land of the stars. You showed her the distant past and the far future. She called you a… lonely traveler."

Zoe sighed. "I almost did not want to believe her. The idea that the universe is vast, filled with many other beings… it frightens me. The stars are beautiful, but… their land is a land beyond the gods."

The Doctor nodded. "I can understand that. Learning you're not all alone in the universe can come as a bit of a shock." Then he turned back to Thalia. "Well, if you don't believe me, feel free to go outside. Then you'll see what the TARDIS is capable of."

Grover finally found his voice. "The what?"

The Doctor grinned. "The TARDIS. Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Old friend of mine made up the name from the initials. Now…" he pulled a small screen down to his level— it looked like a television monitor. "Oh dear," he murmured. "Might be a minute. We're in the wrong place. Hold on." He resumed piloting his time machine.

As they flew— albeit less turbulently this time— Percy asked Thalia about the weird mortal girl, Rachel Elizabeth Dare, who seemed to be able to see right through the Mist. He thought Thalia was going to call him crazy, but she just nodded.

"Some mortals are like that," she said. "Nobody knows why."

Suddenly Percy thought about something he'd never considered.

His mother was like that. She had seen the Minotaur on Half-Blood Hill and known exactly what it was. She hadn't been surprised at all the previous year when he'd told her his friend Tyson was really a Cyclops. Maybe she'd known all along. No wonder she'd been so scared for Percy as he was growing up. She saw through the Mist even better than he did.

Then he turned to the Doctor. "You're like that," he said. "You can see through the Mist."

The Doctor nodded as he typed something into a computer. "Yes. Although I know why."


But the Doctor acted like he hadn't heard him.

Percy shrugged and glanced at Thalia. "Well, the girl was annoying," he said. "But I'm glad I didn't vaporize her. That would've been bad."

Thalia nodded. "Must be nice to be a regular mortal." She said that as if she'd given it a lot of thought.

Zoe paced in circles, studying the top of the control console. Percy couldn't blame her— it looked pretty cool. The cylinder in the center grew to a large object the Doctor said was called a rotor. When Percy thought about it, the console was almost shaped like an hourglass, when he looked at it from top to bottom.
Zoe was particularly interested in the designs on the rotor— strange but oddly beautiful circular shapes. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to make sense of it. "I recognize these symbols," she murmured. "I can't quite tell what they are, but I know I've seen them somewhere."

Once again, the Doctor said nothing. He just pretended not to hear.

"And… we are landing," the Doctor said, suddenly breaking Percy from his thoughts. "Somewhere by the Embarcadero Building. Hopefully, the Old Girl can blend in with the pigeons."

Everyone looked at him.

He smirked. "I'm kidding," he said, holding up his hands in surrender. "What, I can't have a sense of humor?"

Thalia let out a snort. "I didn't think you had one."

As it turned out, there wasn't much need to blend in. It was early morning and not many people were around. They freaked out a homeless man on the ferry dock upon landing, though. He screamed when he saw people step out of the TARDIS and ran off yelling something about phone booths and aliens from Mars.

When they stepped outside, Percy took one look at the city and said, "Whoa."

He'd seen San Francisco in pictures before, but never in real life. It was probably the most beautiful city he'd ever seen: kind of like a smaller, cleaner Manhattan, if Manhattan had been surrounded by green hills and fog. There was a huge bay, ships, islands and sailboats, and the Golden Gate Bridge off in the distance.

The Doctor turned the TARDIS invisible with a snap of his fingers, which freaked Grover out. That's when Percy realized he had no idea what they were going to do next.

They'd made it to the West Coast. Artemis was there somewhere. Annabeth too, he hoped. But he had no idea how to find them, and tomorrow was the winter solstice. Nor did he have any clue what monster Artemis had been hunting. It was supposed to find them on the quest. It was supposed to "show the trail," but it never had. Now they were stuck on the ferry dock with not much money, no friends, and no luck.

That was when Grover brought up finding Nereus, but the Doctor shook his head. "No. Nereus is a trickster. Getting information out of him would be more trouble than it's worth. Believe me, I know from experience."

Percy tried to argue. "But then how are we—"

The Doctor held up a hand to silence him. "I know exactly what Artemis was hunting. Took me a while to put the pieces together, but I figured it out. Everyone come with me— we're going to the ocean."

He led the way back down to the waterfront. He went out to the nearest pier. Then they all crouched down at the edge and waited.
Twenty minutes later, they were all on edge. Percy grew more and more worried about the monster, his mind filled with questions. How hard would it be to kill? How dangerous was it? Then—

"Wait." Thalia's eyes widened. "What is that?"


Percy looked down, and there was his friend the cow serpent, swimming next to the dock. She nudged his shoe and gave him sad brown eyes.

"Ah, Bessie," Percy said. "Not now."


Grover gasped. "He says his name isn't Bessie."

"You can understand her… er, him?"

Grover nodded. "It's a very old form of animal speech. But he says his name is the Ophiotaurus."

"The Ophi-what?"

"It means serpent bull in Greek," Thalia said. "But what's it doing here?"


"He says Percy is his protector," Grover announced. "And he's running from the bad people. He says they are close."

While Percy was wondering how Grover got all that out of a single moo, the Doctor nodded. "Yes. When we saw the Ophiotaurus at the Hoover Dam, things started coming back to me. I knew this was the creature Artemis was looking for."

"Wait," Zoe said, looking at the two of them. "You know this cow?"

Percy was feeling impatient, but he told them the story.

Thalia shook her head in disbelief. "And you just forgot to mention this before?"

"Well… yeah." To Percy, it seemed silly now that she said it, but things had been happening so fast. Bessie, the Ophiotaurus, seemed like a minor detail.

"I am a fool," Zoe said suddenly. "I know this story!"

"What story?" Percy asked.

"From the War of the Titans," she said. "My… my father told me this tale, thousands of years ago. The Doctor is right— this is the beast we are looking for."

"Bessie?" Percy looked down at the bull serpent. "But… he's too cute. He couldn't destroy the world."

"That is how we were wrong," Zoe said. "We've been anticipating a huge dangerous monster, but the Ophiotaurus does not bring down the gods that way. He must be sacrificed."

"MMMM," Bessie lowed.

"I don't think he likes the S-word," Grover said.

Percy stroked Bessie on the head, trying to calm him down. He let Percy scratch his ear, but he was trembling.

"How could anyone hurt him?" Percy said, confused. "He's harmless."

The Doctor nodded. "Yes. That he is. But there is power in killing innocence. Terrible power," he murmured gravely. For a moment, Percy saw a shadow fall over the man's eyes. Not from a lack of light, though. It was an entirely different kind of shadow. Zoe nodded in agreement with him, jumping in to finish the story.

"The Fates ordained a prophecy eons ago when this creature was born. They said that whoever killed the Ophiotaurus and sacrificed its entrails to fire would have the power to destroy the gods."


"Um," Grover said. "Maybe we could avoid talking about entrails, too."

Thalia stared at the cow serpent with wonder. "The power to destroy the gods… how? I mean, what would happen?"

"No one knows," Zoe said. "The first time, during the Titan war, the Ophiotaurus was in fact slain by a giant ally of the Titans, but thy father, Zeus, sent an eagle to snatch the entrails away before they could be tossed into the fire. It was a close call. Now, after three thousand years, the Ophiotaurus is reborn."

Thalia sat down on the dock. She stretched out her hand. Bessie went right to her. Thalia placed her hand on his head. Bessie shivered.

Thalia's expression bothered Percy. She almost looked… hungry.

"We have to protect him," he told them. "If Luke gets hold of him—"

"Luke wouldn't hesitate," Thalia muttered. "The power to overthrow Olympus. That's… that's huge."

"Yes, it is, my dear," said a man's voice in a heavy French accent. "And it is a power you shall unleash."

The Ophiotaurus made a whimpering sound and submerged.

Percy looked up. They'd been so busy talking that they'd allowed themselves to be ambushed.

Standing behind them, his two-color eyes gleaming wickedly, was Dr. Thorn, the manticore himself.

"This is just purrr-fect," the manticore gloated.

He was wearing a ratty black trench coat over his Westover Hall uniform, which was torn and stained. His military haircut had grown out spiky and greasy. He hadn't shaved recently, so his face was covered in silver stubble. He looked much worse than he had before.

"Long ago, the gods banished me to Persia," the manticore said. "I was forced to scrounge for food on the edges of the world, hiding in forests, devouring insignificant human farmers for my meals. I never got to fight any great heroes or children of time. I was not feared and admired in the old stories! But now that will change. The Titans shall honor me, and I shall feast on the flesh of half-bloods!"

On either side of him stood two armed men, some of the mortal mercenaries they had seen in D.C. Two more stood on the next boat dock over, just in case they tried to escape that way. There were tourists all around— walking down the waterfront, shopping at the pier above them— but Percy knew that wouldn't stop the manticore from acting.

"Where… where are the skeletons?" he asked the manticore.

He sneered. "I do not need those foolish undead! The General thinks I am worthless? He will change his mind when I defeat you myself!"

Percy needed time to think. He had to save Bessie. He could dive into the sea, but how could he make a quick getaway with a five-hundred-pound cow serpent? And what about his friends?

"We beat you once before," Percy said.

"Ha! You could barely fight me with a goddess on your side. And, alas… that goddess is preoccupied at the moment. There will be no help for you now."

Zoe notched an arrow and aimed it straight at the manticore's head. The guards on either side of them raised their guns.

"Wait!" the Doctor yelled. "Zoe, don't!"

The manticore smiled. "The young Titan is right, Zoe Nightshade. Put away your bow. It would be a shame to kill you before you witnessed Thalia's great victory."

The Doctor glowered at the manticore. "I am not a Titan."

"What are you talking about?" Thalia growled. She had her shield and spear ready.

"Surely it is clear," the manticore said. "This is your moment. This is why Lord Kronos brought you back to life. You will sacrifice the Ophiotaurus. You will bring its entrails to the sacred fire on the mountain. You will gain unlimited power. And for your sixteenth birthday, you will overthrow Olympus."

No one spoke. It made terrible sense. Thalia was only two days away from turning sixteen. She was a child of the three elder gods. And here was a choice, a terrible choice that could mean the end of Olympus. It was just like the prophecy said. Percy wasn't sure if he felt relieved, horrified, or disappointed. He wasn't the child of the prophecy after all. Doomsday was happening right now.

Percy waited for Thalia to tell the manticore off, but she hesitated. She looked completely stunned.

"You know it is the right choice," the manticore told her. "Your friend Luke recognized it. You shall be reunited with him. You shall rule this world together under the auspices of the Titans. Your father abandoned you, Thalia. He cares nothing for you. And now you shall gain power over him. Crush the Olympians underfoot, as they deserve. Call the beast! It will come to you. Use your spear."

"Thalia," Percy said, "snap out of it!"

She looked at him the same way she had the morning she woke up on Half-Blood Hill, dazed and uncertain. It was almost like she didn't know Percy. "I… I don't—"

The Doctor tried to reason with her. "Your father helped you," he said. "He helped by bringing the TARDIS to us, so we could escape. He turned you into a tree to preserve you."

Her hand tightened on the shaft of her spear.

Percy looked at Grover desperately. Thankfully, he understood what his friend needed. He raised his pipes to his mouth and played a quick riff.

The manticore yelled, "Stop him!"

The guards had been targeting Zoe, and before they could figure out that the satyr with the pipes was the bigger problem, the wooden planks at their feet sprouted new branches and tangled their legs. Zoe let loose two quick arrows that exploded at their feet in clouds of thick gray smoke.

The guards started coughing. The manticore shot spines in their direction, but they ricocheted off Percy's lion's coat.

"Grover," Percy said, "tell Bessie to dive deep and stay down!"

"Moooooo!" Grover translated. Percy could only hope that Bessie got the message.

"The cow…" Thalia muttered, still in a daze.

"Come on!" the Doctor pulled her along as they ran up the stairs to the shopping center on the pier. They dashed around the corner of the nearest store. Percy heard the manticore shouting at his minions, "Get them!" Tourists screamed as the guards shot blindly into the air.

They scrambled to the end of the pier, hiding behind a little kiosk filled with souvenir crystals—wind chimes and dream catchers, glittering in the sunlight. There was a water fountain next to them. Down below, a bunch of sea lions were sunning themselves on the rocks. The whole of San Francisco Bay spread out before them: the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the green hills and fog beyond that to the north. A picture-perfect moment, except for the fact that they were about to die and the world was going to end.

"We need to make a break for it," the Doctor said. "Maybe we can make it back to the TARDIS."

Zoe shook her head gravely. "We would never make it. And how would that help the Ophiotaurus?"

"Go over the side!" she told Percy. "You can escape in the sea. Call on thy father for help. Maybe you can save the Ophiotaurus."

She was right, but he couldn't do it.

"I won't leave you guys," he said. "We fight together."

"You have to get word to camp!" Grover said. "At least let them know what's going on!"

Then Percy noticed the crystals making rainbows in the sunlight. There was a drinking fountain next to him…

"Get word to camp," he muttered. "Good idea."

Percy uncapped Riptide and slashed off the top of the water fountain. Water burst out of the busted pipe and sprayed all over them.

Thalia gasped as the water hit her. The fog seemed to clear from her eyes. "Are you crazy?" she asked.

But Grover understood. He was already fishing around in his pockets for a coin. He threw a golden drachma into the rainbows created by the mist and yelled, "O goddess, accept my offering!"

The mist rippled.

"Camp Half-Blood!" Percy yelled.

And there, shimmering in the Mist right next to them, was the last person any of them wanted to see: Mr. D, wearing his leopard-skin jogging suit and rummaging through the refrigerator.

He looked up lazily. "Do you mind?"

"Where's Chiron!" Percy shouted.

"How rude." Mr. D took a swig from a jug of grape juice. "Is that how you say hello?"

"Hello," he amended. "We're about to die! Where's Chiron?"

Mr. D considered that. Percy wanted to scream at him to hurry up, but he knew that wouldn't work. Behind them, footsteps and shouting— the manticore's troops were closing in.

"About to die," Mr. D mused. "How exciting. I'm afraid Chiron isn't here. Would you like me to take a message?"

Percy looked at his friends. "We're dead."

Thalia gripped her spear. She looked like her old angry self again. "Then we'll die fighting."

"How noble," Mr. D said, stifling a yawn. "So, what is the problem, exactly?"

He didn't see that it would make any difference, but Percy told him about the Ophiotaurus.

"Mmm." He studied the contents of the fridge. "So that's it. I see."

"You don't even care!" Percy screamed. "You'd just as soon watch us die!"

"Let's see. I think I'm in the mood for pizza tonight."

Percy wanted to slash through the rainbow and disconnect, but he didn't have time. The manticore screamed, "There!" And they were surrounded. Two of the guards stood behind him. The other two appeared on the roofs of the pier shops above. The manticore threw off his coat and transformed into his true self, his lion claws extended and his spiky tail bristling with poison barbs.

"Excellent," he gloated. He glanced at the apparition in the mist and snorted. "Alone, without any real help. Wonderful."

"You could ask for help," Mr. D murmured to Percy, as if that was an amusing thought. "You could say please."

When wild boars fly, Percy thought. There was no way he was going to die begging a slob like Mr. D, just so he could laugh as everyone got gunned down.

The Doctor kept trying to push buttons in a sequence with his sonic screwdriver. Zoe readied her arrows. Grover lifted his pipes. Thalia raised her shield. That was when Percy noticed a tear running down her cheek. Suddenly it occurred to him: this had happened to her before. She had been cornered on Half-Blood Hill. She'd willingly given her life for her friends. But this time, she couldn't save them.

How could he let that happen to her?

"Please, Mr. D," Percy muttered. "Help."

Of course, nothing happened.

The manticore grinned. "Spare the daughter of Zeus. She will join us soon enough. Kill the others."

The men raised their guns, and something strange happened.

A feeling not unlike blood rushing to the head occurred all around Percy, then a sound like a huge sigh. The sunlight tinged with purple. He smelled grapes, then something sourer— wine.


It was the sound of many minds breaking at the same time. The sound of madness. One guard put his pistol between his teeth like it was a bone and ran around on all fours. Two others dropped their guns and started waltzing with each other. The fourth began doing what looked like an Irish clogging dance. It could have been funny, if it hadn't been so terrifying.

"No!" screamed the manticore. "I will deal with you myself!"

His tail bristled, but the planks under his paws erupted into grape vines, which immediately began wrapping around the monster's body, sprouting new leaves and clusters of green baby grapes that ripened in seconds as the manticore shrieked, until he was engulfed in a huge mass of vines, leaves, and full clusters of purple grapes. Finally, the grapes stopped shivering, and Percy had a feeling that somewhere inside there, the manticore was no more.

"Well," said Dionysus, closing his refrigerator. "That was fun."

Both Percy and the Doctor stared at him, horrified. The former stammered, "How could you… How did you—"

"Such gratitude," he muttered. "The mortals will come out of it. Too much explaining to do if I made their condition permanent. I hate writing reports to Father."

He stared resentfully at Thalia. "I hope you learned your lesson, girl. It isn't easy to resist power, is it?"

Thalia blushed as if she were ashamed.

"Mr. D," Grover said in amazement. "You… you saved us."

He groaned. "Don't make me regret it, satyr. Now get going, Percy Jackson. I've bought you a few hours at most."

"The Ophiotaurus," he said. "Can you get it to camp?"

Mr. D sniffed. "I do not transport livestock. That's your problem."

"But where do we go?"

Dionysus looked at Zoe. "Oh, I think the huntress knows. You must enter at sunset today, you know, or all is lost. Now good-bye. My pizza is waiting."

"Mr. D," Percy said.

He raised his eyebrow.

"You called me by my right name," he said. "You called me Percy Jackson."

"I most certainly did not, Peter Johnson. Now off with you!"

He waved his hand, and his image disappeared in the mist.

All around them, the manticore's minions were still acting completely nuts. One of them had found the freaked out homeless man, and they were having a serious conversation about aliens from Mars. Several other guards were harassing the tourists, making animal noises and trying to steal their shoes.

Percy looked at Zoe. "What did he mean… 'You know where to go'?"

Her face was the color of the fog. She pointed across the bay, past the Golden Gate. In the distance, a single mountain rose up above the cloud layer.

"The garden of my sisters," she said. "I must go home."

Chapter Text

"We will never make it," Zoe went on. "We are moving too slow. But we cannot leave the Ophiotaurus."

"Mooo," Bessie said. He swam in circles next to Percy on the dock.

"We've got the TARDIS," the Doctor argued. "Might I remind you that she is a time machine? We can go any place, at any time. I know where the garden is. We'll be alright. We can make it there before sunset."

"I don't get it," Percy said. "Why do we have to get there at sunset?"

"The Hesperides are the nymphs of the sunset," Zoe said. "We can only enter their garden as day changes to night." Then she turned to the Doctor and sighed. "You are right in saying that we would be able to travel faster with the aid of thy machine. Even so, we cannot bring the Ophiotaurus on board. He will not leave the water."

Grover stopped in his tracks. "I've got an idea! The Ophiotaurus can appear in different bodies of water, right?"

"Well, yeah," Percy said. "I mean, he was in Long Island Sound. Then he just popped into the water at Hoover Dam. And now he's here."

"So maybe we could coax him back to Long Island Sound," Grover said. "Then Chiron could help us get him to Olympus."

"But he was following me," Percy said. "If I'm not there, would he know where he's going?"

"Moo," Bessie said forlornly.

"I… I can show him," Grover said. "I'll go with him. The rest of you can go in the TARDIS to reach the garden by sunset."

Percy stared at him in shock. Grover was no fan of the water. He'd almost drowned the previous summer in the Sea of Monsters, and he couldn't swim very well with his goat hooves.

"I'm the only one who can really talk to him," Grover said. "It makes sense."

Surprisingly, the Doctor nodded— albeit reluctantly. "Be careful, Grover."

Grover bent down and said something in Bessie's ear. Bessie shivered, then made a contented lowing sound.

"The blessing of the Wild," Grover said. "That should help with safe passage. Percy, pray to your dad, too. See if he will grant us safe passage through the seas."

Percy didn't understand how they could possibly swim back to Long Island from California. Then again, he knew monsters didn't travel the same way as humans. He'd seen plenty of evidence of that.

He closed his eyes. Percy tried to concentrate on the waves, the smell of the ocean, the sound of the tide.

"Father," he said. "Help us. Get the Ophiotaurus and Grover safely to camp. Protect them at sea."

"A prayer like that needs a sacrifice," Thalia said. "Something big."

He thought for a second. Then he took off the lion skin coat.

"Percy," Grover said uncertainly. "Are you sure? That lion skin… that's really helpful. Hercules used it!"

As soon as Grover said that, Percy realized something.

He glanced at Zoe, who had been watching him carefully. He realized he did know who Zoe's hero had been— the one who'd ruined her life, gotten her kicked out of her family, and never even mentioned how she'd helped him: Hercules, a hero Percy had admired all his life.

"If I'm going to survive," he said, "it won't be because I've got a lion-skin cloak. I'm not Hercules."

Percy threw the coat into the bay. It turned back into a golden lion skin, flashing in the light. Then, as it began to sink beneath the waves, it seemed to dissolve into sunlight on the water. The sea breeze picked up.

The Doctor watched the lionskin melt, then glanced at Percy and nodded approvingly, smiling. "You did the right thing, kid."
Something about that statement pleased Percy. He admired the Doctor, so it felt good to have his approval. "Uh… thanks?" Then he frowned. "Wait, did you just call me 'kid'? Don't do that."

He grinned. Then he winked at Percy.

Grover took a deep breath. "Well, no time to lose."

He jumped in the water and immediately began to sink. Bessie glided next to him and let Grover take hold of his neck.

"Be careful," Percy told them.

"We will," Grover said. "Okay, um… Bessie? We're going to Long Island. It's east. Over that way."

"Moooo?" Bessie said.

"Yes," Grover answered. "Long Island. It's this island. And… it's long. Oh, let's just start."


Bessie lurched forward. He started to submerge, and Grover said, "I can't breathe underwater! Just thought I'd mention—" Glub!

Under they went, and Percy hoped that his father's protection would extend to little things, like breathing.

"Well, that is one problem addressed," Zoe said. "Now, let us go to my sisters' garden." She glanced up at the Doctor and smiled. "Lead the way, Doctor."

They all went inside the TARDIS, and the Doctor activated the flight sequence. However, not long after the TARDIS started moving, Percy got the feeling something was wrong. The room started shuddering, but it was different than before. The room tilted sideways, sending nearly everyone slamming into the right wall. Only the Doctor and Thalia had managed to avoid hitting it, as they had grasped onto a metal support mid-fall.

Then the room straightened out, and the TARDIS landed with a thump. Everyone peeled themselves off the ground, groaning. "Blimey," the Doctor said to himself, tilting his head to one side. He laid a hand on his neck and winced. "That's gonna leave a bruise."

Then he strode over to the console and pulled down the tiny computer monitor. His brow furrowed. "Wait a minute, that can't be right," he muttered. Then he looked up at the ceiling. "Here? Again? Just what is your problem?!"

A low hum echoed throughout the room in response. If Percy hadn't known better, he would have thought the TARDIS sounded… angry. But it was just a machine. So why was the Doctor yelling at it?

The Doctor groaned in frustration. "I don't care if it's important, we have other places to be right now! Why do you keep trying to bring me to some bloody house in San Francisco?!"

Another hum. This time, lights flickered along with it.

Percy's eyes widened. "Is it… talking to you?"

"She," he corrected. "And yes, she is talking to me. We're having an argument," he said, glowering at the ceiling. Then he rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's real mature," he snapped. The Doctor glanced back over at Percy. "Whatever the mental equivalent of sticking your tongue out is, she just did that to me."

Thalia let out a stifled laugh.

"So she is alive," Zoe murmured thoughtfully. The Doctor nodded.

"Yes, she's sentient. Thinks for herself. And for whatever reason, she's refusing to move. Claims we need to get out here first. Says it's important."

Then another hum, and the Doctor's face paled. "She just said it's about Annabeth," he murmured.

Thalia raised a brow at him. "Where is here, exactly?"

He shrugged. "Some house in San Francisco."

"Do you have the address pulled up over there?"

He nodded. "Yeah, but you wouldn't be able to read it. It's not in English. Or Ancient Greek."

Suddenly Percy thought back to the symbols on the rotor, the way Zoe had said she recognized them. Were they some kind of… language? Or code?

Then Thalia spoke, breaking Percy from his thoughts. She pulled a crumpled piece of notebook paper out of her pocket and showed it to the Doctor, asked, "Is this the address? I had a hunch."

The Doctor nodded. "Yes. It is. What's there?"

She sighed. "That house belongs to Professor Chase. Annabeth's dad. I think your spaceship wants us to talk to him. Maybe he could help us somehow. At the very least… we should tell him what happened to Annabeth."

 After hearing Annabeth gripe about her dad for two years, Percy was half expecting him to have devil horns and fangs. He was not expecting him to be wearing an old-fashioned aviator cap and goggles. Her dad looked so weird, with his eyes bugging out through the glasses, that everyone— save for the Doctor— took a step back on the front porch.

"Hello," he said in a friendly voice, "Are you delivering my airplanes?"

Thalia, Zoe, and Percy looked at each other warily. The Doctor answered before any of them could.

"No, sir, I'm afraid not."

"Drat," he said. "I need three more Sopwith Camels."

"Right," the Doctor responded politely. "The thing is… we're friends of Annabeth."

"Annabeth?" He straightened as if the Doctor had just given him an electric shock. "Is she all right? Has something happened?"

No one answered, but Percy realized their faces must've told him that something was very wrong. He took off his cap and goggles. He had sandy-colored hair like Annabeth and intense brown eyes. He was somewhat handsome— for an older guy— but it looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and his shirt was buttoned wrong, so one side of his collar stuck up higher than the other side.

"You'd better come in," he said.

 The house didn't look like a house they'd just moved into. There were LEGO robots on the stairs and two cats sleeping on the sofa in the living room. The coffee table was stacked with magazines, and a little kid's winter coat was spread on the floor. The whole house smelled like fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies. There was jazz music coming from the kitchen. To Percy, it seemed like a messy, happy kind of home— the kind of place that had been lived in forever.

"Dad!" a little boy screamed. "He's taking apart my robots!"

"Bobby," Dr. Chase called absently, "don't take apart your brother's robots."

"I'm Bobby," the little boy protested. "He's Matthew!"

"Matthew," Dr. Chase corrected himself, "don't take apart your brother's robots!"

"Okay, Dad!"

Dr. Chase turned to us. "We'll go upstairs to my study. This way."

"Honey?" a woman called. Annabeth's stepmother appeared in the living room, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She was a pretty Asian woman with red highlighted hair tied in a bun.

"Who are our guests?" she asked.

"Oh," Dr. Chase said. "This is…"

He stared at them blankly.

"Frederick," she chided. "You forgot to ask them their names?"

He immediately looked embarrassed. "I apologize. And, if I may…" he narrowed his eyes at the Doctor. "You seem familiar. Have we met?"

The Doctor smiled, shrugged. "Perhaps. I'm the Doctor. That's what I go by."

Dr. Chase's eyes widened. "That's why you…" he trailed off. "Sorry." He turned to his wife. "They came about Annabeth, dear."

Percy almost expected Mrs. Chase to turn into a raving lunatic at the mention of her stepdaughter, but she just pursed her lips and looked concerned.

They introduced themselves a little uneasily, but Mrs. Chase seemed really nice. She asked if they were hungry. They admitted they were, and she told them she'd bring some cookies and sandwiches and sodas.

"Go on up to the study and I'll bring you some food," she said. Then she smiled at Percy. "Nice meeting you, Percy. I've heard a lot about you."

Percy's face went red.

 Upstairs, they walked into Dr. Chase's study and Percy exclaimed, "Whoa!"

The room was wall-to-wall books, but what really caught his attention were the war toys. There was a huge table with miniature tanks and soldiers fighting along a blue painted river, with hills and fake trees. Old-fashioned biplanes hung on strings from the ceiling, tilted at crazy angles like they were in the middle of a dogfight.

Dr. Chase smiled. "Yes. The Third Battle of Ypres. I'm writing a paper, you see, on the use of Sopwith Camels to strafe enemy lines. I believe they played a much greater role than they've been given credit for."

"Oh, right," Percy said. He knew Annabeth's dad was a professor of military history. She'd never mentioned he collected toy soldiers.

Zoe came over and studied the battlefield. "The German lines were farther from the river."

Dr. Chase stared at her. "How do you know that?"

"I was there," she said matter-of-factly. "Artemis wanted to show us how horrible war was, the way mortal men fight each other. And how foolish, too. The battle was a complete waste."

Dr. Chase opened his mouth in shock. "You—"

"She's a Hunter, sir," Thalia said. "But that's not why we're here. We need—"

"You saw the Sopwith Camels?" Dr. Chase said. "How many were there? What formations did they fly?"

"Sir," the Doctor broke in. "Annabeth is in danger. We're going to Mount Tamalpais to help her."

That got his attention. He stopped asking Zoe questions and turned to face the Doctor. "Of course," he said. "Tell me everything."

It wasn't easy for Percy— or any of them, really, that he knew— but they tried. Meanwhile, the afternoon light was fading outside. They were running out of time, and unless they wanted to go back in time, Percy knew they had to hurry.

When they'd finished, Dr. Chase collapsed in his leather recliner. He laced his hands. "My poor brave Annabeth. We must hurry."

The Doctor held up a hand to keep him from continuing. "I understand if you want to help, but… where we're going is no place for mortals. Granted, I'm mortal, but my circumstances are… different."

Dr. Chase sighed, glancing up at the Doctor. "When Annabeth came home after she ran away, one of the things she always talked about was you. I knew you had been very kind to her. In fact…" he chuckled. "The way she told it… I suspect that you were more of a father to her than I ever was. That's no one's fault but my own." He paused, wrung his hands. "We saved a room for her here. It's down the hall. There's something in there that I think you should see. A photograph, on the end table."

Then he said, "Listen, Annabeth is my daughter. Dangerous or not, I can't just—"

"Snacks," Mrs. Chase announced. She pushed through the door with a tray full of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Cokes and cookies fresh out of the oven. Thalia, Zoe, and Percy inhaled a few cookies while the Doctor said, "Sir… for your own safety, you need to stay here. We came here because you deserved to know what happened, not so you could endanger yourself."

Mrs. Chase knit her eyebrows. "What's this about?"

"Annabeth is in danger," Dr. Chase said. "On Mount Tam. I would go with them, but… apparently it's no place for mortals." It sounded like it was hard for him to get that last part out. He looked at the Doctor. "Before you go, will you look at what I told you about?"

He nodded.

Mrs. Chase's eyes widened. "Wait. You're—"

The Doctor nodded, effectively cutting her off.

Zoe grabbed a sandwich. "Thank you both. We should go."

The Doctor sighed and nodded. "Yes. We should. But first things first… the room down the hall."

The room was fairly easy to find, since all the doors to the upstairs rooms were left wide open, and there was only one room with a bed in it. A few simple pieces of furniture were left in the room. A dresser with a mirror hanging above it. A desk. An end table, like Dr. Chase mentioned. On the table was a single photograph.

They all walked over to it, and the Doctor picked it up to examine it. Upon studying the image, a wistful smile appeared on his face. When Percy leaned closer to look at the photo, he understood why.

The photograph was of the Doctor beside a much younger Annabeth. Both of them were smiling. Annabeth was leaning into his side, and he had his arm around her. Her hair was in braids and had what looked to be wildflowers stuck in it. She wasn't just smiling, Percy realized— she was grinning like a lunatic. Percy knew she must've been very happy.

The Doctor let out a sigh and set the photograph down. "I remember that," he murmured. "She made me braid her hair."

Thalia nodded, chuckling. "Then she made me stick flowers in it."

The Doctor kept his eyes on the photograph for another heartbeat, then turned back around. "Okay, we really need to go. We can reminisce when no one is in danger."

They hurried out the door and down the stairs, the Chases right behind them.

"Percy," Mrs. Chase called as he was leaving, "tell Annabeth… Tell her she still has a home here, will you? Remind her of that."

He took one last look at the messy living room, Annabeth's half-brothers spilling LEGOs and arguing, the smell of cookies filling the air. Not a bad place, he thought.

"I'll tell her," he promised.

They ran out to the TARDIS, carefully concealed in the bushes. The sun was going down. Percy figured they had less than an hour to save Annabeth.

 Before long, the TARDIS had landed near the mountain. When Percy stepped outside, he asked, "Why does everything smell like cough drops?"

"Eucalyptus." The Doctor pointed to the huge trees all around them.

"The stuff koala bears eat?"

"And monsters," he said. "They love chewing the leaves. Especially dragons."

"Dragons chew eucalyptus leaves?"

"Believe me," Zoe broke in, "if you had dragon breath, you would chew eucalyptus too." The Doctor nodded in agreement.

Percy didn't question her, but kept his eyes peeled. Ahead of them loomed Mount Tamalpais. In terms of mountains, it was a small one, but it looked plenty huge as they walked toward it.

"So that's the Mountain of Despair?" Percy asked.

"Yes," Zoe replied, her voice thin and clipped.

"Why do they call it that?"

She was silent for a long time before answering. "After the war between the Titans and the gods, many of the Titans were punished and imprisoned. Kronos was sliced to pieces and thrown into Tartarus. Kronos's right-hand man, the general of his forces, was imprisoned up there, on the summit, just beyond the Garden of the Hesperides."

"The General," Percy said, suddenly understanding. He glanced up at the summit. Clouds seemed to be swirling around its peak, as though the mountain was drawing them in, spinning them like a top. "What's going on up there? A storm?"

Zoe didn't answer. Percy got the feeling she knew exactly what the clouds meant, and she didn't like it.

The Doctor looked up at the sky as well, and he frowned. "Maybe. We should keep our eyes open."

The gray clouds swirled even thicker over the mountain, and they kept walking straight toward them. They were out of the forest now, into wide open spaces of cliffs and grass and rocks and fog.

Percy happened to glance down at the ocean as they passed a scenic curve, and saw something that made him jump out of his skin. "Look!"

"What?" Thalia asked.

"A big white ship," he said. "Docked near the beach. It looks like a cruise ship."

Her eyes widened. "Luke's ship?"

Percy wanted to say he wasn't sure. It might be a coincidence. But he knew better. The Princess Andromeda, Luke's demon cruise ship, was docked at that beach. That's why he'd sent his ship all the way down to the Panama Canal. It was the only way to sail it from the East Coast to California.

"We will have company, then," Zoe said grimly. "Kronos's army."

Percy was about to answer, when suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The Doctor shouted, "We need to move. NOW!"

Zoe must've sensed something was wrong, because she started moving without question. Everyone followed her, ducking behind a boulder. An instant later, there was a deafening boom. Lightning struck where they had just been standing, lighting the grass on fire.

Percy swallowed the taste of smoke out of his mouth, and looked at the Doctor. "You saved our lives."

Thalia's eyes darkened. "One shall perish by a parent's hand," she muttered. "Curse him. He would destroy me? Me?"

It took Percy a second to realize she was talking about her father. "Oh, hey, that couldn't have been Zeus' lightning bolt. No way."

"Whose, then?" Thalia demanded.

"I don't know. Zoe said Kronos's name. Maybe he—"

Thalia shook her head, looking angry and stunned. "No. That wasn't it."

"Wait," the Doctor broke in. "Where'd Zoe go? She just disappeared!"

They ran around the site of the lightning strike, calling out to her. She was nowhere to be seen. No sign of her down the road or by the cliff, either.

"Zoe!" Percy shouted.

Then she was standing right next to him, pulling him by his arm. "Silence, fool! Do you want to wake Ladon?"

"You mean we're here?"

"Very close," she said. "Follow me."

Sheets of fog were drifting right across the road. Zoe stepped into one of them, and when the fog passed, she was no longer there. Thalia, the Doctor, and Percy exchanged worried looks.

"Concentrate on Zoe," the Doctor advised. "We are following her. Go straight into the fog and keep that in mind."

Percy laid a hand on Thalia's shoulder. "Hold on. Thalia… about what happened back on the pier… I mean, with the manticore and the sacrifice—"

"I don't want to talk about it," she snapped.

"You wouldn't actually have… you know?"

She hesitated. "I was just shocked. That's all."

"Zeus didn't send that lightning bolt at the car. It was Kronos. He's trying to manipulate you, make you angry at your dad."

She took a deep breath. "Percy, I know you're trying to make me feel better. Thanks. But come on. We need to go."

She stepped into the fog, into the Mist, and Percy followed, with the Doctor at his side.

When the fog cleared, they were still on the side of the mountain, but the road was dirt. The grass was thicker. The sunset made a bloodred slash across the sea. The summit of the mountain seemed closer now, swirling with storm clouds and raw power. There was only one path to the top, directly in front of them. And it led through a lush meadow of shadows and flowers: the garden of twilight, just like Percy had seen in his dream.

 If it hadn't been for the enormous dragon, the garden would've been the most beautiful place Percy had ever seen. The grass shimmered with silvery evening light, and the flowers were such brilliant colors they almost glowed in the dark. Stepping stones of polished black marble led around either side of a five-story-tall apple tree, every bough glittering with golden apples. Not just yellow golden apples, real golden apples. Percy couldn't describe why they were so appealing, but as soon as he smelled their fragrance, he knew that one bite would be the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted.

"The apples of immortality," Thalia said. "Hera's wedding gift from Zeus."

Percy wanted to step right up and pluck one, except for the dragon coiled around the tree.

The serpent's body was as thick as a booster rocket, glinting with coppery scales. He had more heads than Percy could count, as if a hundred deadly pythons had been fused together. He appeared to be asleep. The heads lay curled in a big spaghetti-like mound on the grass, all the eyes closed.

Then the shadows in front of them began to move. There was a beautiful, eerie singing, like voices from the bottom of a well. Percy reached for Riptide, but Zoe stopped his hand.

Four figures shimmered into existence, four young women who looked very much like Zoe. They all wore white Greek chitons. Their skin was like caramel. Silky black hair tumbled loose around their shoulders. It was strange, but Percy had never realized how beautiful Zoe was until he saw her siblings, the Hesperides. They looked just like Zoe— gorgeous, and probably very dangerous.

"Sisters," Zoe said.

"We do not see any sister," one of the girls said coldly. "We see two half-bloods, a Hunter, and a man with Titan blood. All of whom shall soon die."

Percy didn't have time to be confused at that statement as the Doctor stepped forward.

"You've got it wrong," he said. "No one is going to die."

The girls studied him. They had eyes like volcanic rock, glassy and completely black.

"Doctor," one of them hissed.

"Yes," mused another. "I do not see why he is a threat."

The Doctor raised an eyebrow at them. "Who said I was a threat?"

The first Hesperid glanced behind her, toward the top of the mountain. "They fear thee. They are unhappy that this one has not yet killed thee."

She pointed at Thalia.

"Tempting sometimes," Thalia admitted. "But no thanks. He's my friend."

"There are no friends here, daughter of Zeus," the girl said. "Only enemies. Go back."

"Not without Annabeth," Thalia said.

The Doctor nodded in agreement. "And Artemis," he murmured. "We need to approach the mountain."

"You know he will kill thee," the girl said. "You are no match for him."

"Artemis must be freed," Zoe insisted. "Let us pass."

The girl shook her head. "You have no rights here anymore. We have only to raise our voices and Ladon will wake."

"He will not hurt me," Zoe said.

"No? And what about thy so-called friends?"

Then Zoe did the last thing any of them expected. She took a deep breath and shouted, "Ladon! Wake!"

The dragon stirred, glittering like a mountain of pennies. The Hesperides yelped and scattered. The lead girl said to Zoe, "Are you mad?"

"You never had any courage, sister," Zoe said. "That is thy problem."

The dragon Ladon was writhing now, a hundred heads whipping around, tongues flickering and tasting the air. Zoe took a step forward, her arms raised.

"Zoe, don't," the Doctor pleaded, his voice desperate. "You're not a Hesperid anymore. He'll kill you."

"Ladon is trained to protect the tree," Zoe said. "Skirt around the edges of the garden. Go up the mountain. As long as I am a bigger threat, he should ignore thee."

"Should," Percy said. "Not exactly reassuring." The Doctor gave him a sharp glare.

"It is the only way," she said. "Even the three of us together cannot fight him."

Ladon opened his mouths. The sound of a hundred heads hissing at once sent a shiver down Percy's back, and that was before his breath hit. The smell was like acid. It made Percy's eyes burn, his skin crawl, and his hair stand on end. The stench was like that of a dead animal, except a hundred times stronger, and mixed with the smell of chewed eucalyptus. Percy promised himself right then that he would never ask a school nurse for another cough drop.

He wanted to draw his sword. But then he remembered the dream of Zoe and Hercules, and how Hercules had failed in a head-on assault. He decided to trust Zoe's judgment.

Thalia went left. Percy and the Doctor went right. Zoe walked straight toward the monster.

"It's me, my little dragon," Zoe said. "Zoe has come back."

Ladon shifted forward, then back. Some of the mouths closed. Some kept hissing. Dragon confusion. Meanwhile, the Hesperides shimmered and turned into shadows. The voice of the eldest whispered, "Fool."

"I used to feed thee by hand," Zoe continued, speaking in a soothing voice as she stepped toward the golden tree. "Do you still like lamb's meat?"

The dragon's eyes glinted.

Percy, Thalia and the Doctor were about halfway around the garden. Ahead, Percy could see a single rocky trail leading up to the black peak of the mountain. The storm swirled above it, spinning on the summit like it was the axis for the whole world.

We'd almost made it out of the meadow when something went wrong. Percy felt the dragon's mood shift. Maybe Zoe got too close. Maybe the dragon realized he was hungry. Whatever the reason, he lunged at Zoe.

Two thousand years of training kept her alive. She dodged one set of slashing fangs and tumbled under another, weaving through the dragon's heads as she ran in their direction, gagging from the monster's horrible breath.

Percy drew Riptide to help.

"No!" Zoe panted. "Run!"

The dragon snapped at her side, and Zoe cried out. Thalia uncovered Aegis, and the dragon hissed. In his moment of indecision, Zoe sprinted past them up the mountain, and they followed.

The dragon didn't try to pursue. He hissed and stomped the ground, but he was well trained to guard the tree. He wasn't going to be lured off by anything.

They ran up the mountain as the Hesperides resumed their song in the shadows behind. The music didn't sound so beautiful to Percy then.

At the top of the mountain were ruins, blocks of black granite and marble as big as houses. Broken columns. Statues of bronze that looked as though they'd been half melted.

"The ruins of Mount Othrys," Thalia whispered in awe.

"Yes," Zoe said. "It was not here before. This is bad."

"What's Mount Othrys?" Percy asked, feeling like a fool as usual.

"The mountain fortress of the Titans," Zoe said. "In the first war, Olympus and Othrys were the two rival capitals of the world. Othrys was—" She winced and held her side.

"You're hurt," the Doctor said suddenly, eyes wide with worry. "Let me see." His voice had dropped to a low murmur.

She shook her head vehemently. "No! It is nothing."


She kept speaking, ignoring the Doctor. "As I was saying… in the first war, Othrys was blasted to pieces."

"Then how is it here?" Percy asked.

Thalia looked around cautiously as they picked their way through the rubble, past blocks of marble and broken archways. The Doctor was still trying to get a closer look at Zoe's injury, but she was rebuffing him. "It moves in the same way that Olympus moves. It always exists on the edges of civilization. But the fact that it is here, on this mountain, is not good."


"This is Atlas's mountain," Zoe said. "Where he holds—" She froze. Her voice was ragged with despair. "Where he used to hold up the sky."

They had reached the summit. A few yards ahead, gray clouds swirled in a heavy vortex, making a funnel cloud that almost touched the mountaintop, but instead rested on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old girl with auburn hair and a tattered silvery dress: Artemis, her legs bound to the rock with celestial bronze chains. That was what Percy had seen in his dream. It hadn't been a cavern roof that Artemis was forced to hold. It was the roof of the world.

"My lady!" Zoe rushed forward, but Artemis shouted, "Stop! It is a trap. You must leave now."

Her voice was strained. She was drenched in sweat. Percy had never seen a goddess in pain before, but the weight of the sky was clearly too much for Artemis.

Zoe was crying. She ran forward despite Artemis' protests, and tugged at the chains. The Doctor was right behind her. "Artemis… oh my God." His eyes were wide with pain and shock. "We'll get you out of this," he murmured.

Suddenly, a booming voice spoke behind them. "Ah, how touching."

They turned towards the sound. The General was standing there in his brown silk suit. At his side were Luke and half a dozen dracaenae bearing the golden sarcophagus of Kronos. Annabeth stood at Luke's side. She had her hands cuffed behind her back, a gag in her mouth, and Luke was holding the point of his sword to her throat.

Percy met her eyes, trying to ask her a thousand questions. There was just one message she was sending him, though, and it was very clear: RUN.

Then her eyes flitted over to the Doctor, and her pupils contracted to pinpoints in shock. A tear rolled down her cheek.

"Luke," Thalia snarled. "Let her go."

Luke's smile was weak and pale. He looked even worse than he had three days before in DC. "That is the General's decision, Thalia. But it's good to see you again."

Thalia met his gaze evenly. Her face was cold, expressionless. But Percy could see a storm brewing in her electric blue eyes.

The General chuckled. "So much for old friends. And you, Zoe. It's been a long time. How is my little traitor? I will enjoy killing you."

"Do not respond," Artemis groaned. "Do not challenge him."

"Wait a second," Percy said. "You're Atlas?"

The General glanced at him. "So, even the dumbest of heroes can finally figure something out. Yes, I am Atlas, the general of the Titans and terror of the gods. Congratulations. I will kill you presently, as soon as I deal with this wretched girl." Then his gaze shifted to the Doctor. "Along with the impudent descendant of my commander. He is mortal, but barely. Should make for an interesting opponent."

"You're not going to hurt Zoe," Percy said. His mind was buzzing with questions from what the General had said about the Doctor, but he knew now wasn't the time. "Or the Doctor. I won't let you."

The General sneered. "You have no right to interfere, little hero. This is a family matter."

Percy frowned. "A family matter?"

"Yes," Zoe said bleakly. "Atlas is my father."

The Doctor nodded, his voice somber. "And I am not human. My kind… they are descended from the mad Titan Kronos. They resided on another world, one Kronos used to control. Your people called him the Lord of Time, and, well… my people, his descendants, were called the Time Lords. And I'm the last one. The last living, barely mortal descendant of Kronos. So, yes, this is a family matter."

Chapter Text

The horrible thing was, it made sense to Percy. The Doctor could see through the Mist. He knew of the gods and had apparently met many of them. He'd been called a Titan by both Thorn and the Hesperides. He traveled through the stars in a strange spaceship slash time machine. And the Titans… they feared him. Of course, Percy wondered how the Doctor's supposed people— the Time Lords— had come into existence, but that didn't matter right now.

As for Zoe, he could see her resemblance to Atlas. Atlas had the same regal expression as Zoe, the same cold proud look in his eyes that Zoe sometimes got when she was angry, though on him it looked a thousand times more evil. He was all the things Percy had originally disliked about Zoe, with none of the good he'd come to appreciate.

"Let Artemis go," the Doctor demanded.

Atlas walked closer to the chained goddess. "Perhaps you'd like to take the sky for her, then? Be my guest."

The Doctor opened his mouth to speak, but Artemis shouted, "No! Do not offer to do so, Doctor! I forbid you."

Atlas smirked. He knelt next to Artemis and tried to touch her face, but the goddess bit at him, almost taking off his fingers.

"Hoo-hoo," Atlas chuckled. "You see, Time Lord? Lady Artemis likes her new job. I think I will have all the Olympians take turns carrying my burden, once Lord Kronos rules again, and this is the center of our palace. It will teach those weaklings some humility." He grinned cruelly at the Doctor. "When the Lord of Time rules again, I don't doubt he would view this as a good punishment for a traitor, as well."

Percy looked at Annabeth. She was desperately trying to tell him something. She motioned her head toward Luke. But all he could do was stare at her. He hadn't noticed before, but something about her had changed. Her blond hair was now streaked with gray.

"From holding the sky," Thalia muttered, as if she'd read his mind. "The weight should've killed her."

"I don't understand," Percy said. "Why can't Artemis just let go of the sky?"

Atlas laughed. "How little you understand, young one. This is the point where the sky and the earth first met, where Ouranos and Gaia first brought forth their mighty children, the Titans. The sky still yearns to embrace the earth. Someone must hold it at bay, or else it would crush down upon this place, instantly flattening the mountain and everything within a hundred leagues. Once you have taken the burden, there is no escape." Atlas smiled. "Unless someone else takes it from you."

He approached, studying Thalia and Percy. "So these are the best heroes of the age, eh? Two children of the elder gods, a Hunter, and a traitor to his blood. Not much of a challenge."

The Doctor glowered at Atlas. "I'd rather be viewed as a traitor to my blood than loyal to you. Your kind are cursed. Any descendants of yours are cursed."

"Fight us," Percy added. "And you'll see what kind of a challenge we are."

"Have the gods taught you nothing? An immortal does not fight a mere mortal directly. It is beneath our dignity. I will have Luke crush you instead."

"So you're another coward," Percy spat.

Atlas's eyes glowed with hatred. With difficulty, he turned his attention to Thalia.

"As for you, daughter of Zeus, it seems Luke was wrong about you."

"I wasn't wrong," Luke managed. He looked terribly weak, and he spoke every word as if it were painful. If Percy didn't hate him so much, he almost would've felt sorry for Luke. "Thalia, you still can join us. Call the Ophiotaurus. It will come to you. Look!"

He waved his hand, and next to them, a pool of water appeared: a pond ringed in black marble, big enough for the Ophiotaurus. Percy could imagine Bessie in that pool. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he was sure he could hear Bessie mooing.

Don't think about him! Suddenly Grover's voice was inside Percy's mind— the empathy link. He could feel his friend's emotions. He was on the verge of panic. I'm losing Bessie. Block the thoughts!

Percy tried to make his mind go blank. He tried to think about basketball players, skateboards, the different kinds of candy in his mother's shop, and even Rose, who he still sorely missed. Anything but Bessie.

"Thalia, call the Ophiotaurus," Luke persisted. "And you will be more powerful than the gods."

"Luke…" Her voice was full of pain. "What happened to you?"

"Don't you remember all those times we talked? All those times we cursed the gods? Our fathers have done nothing for us. They have no right to rule the world!"

Thalia shook her head. "Free Annabeth. Let her go."

"If you join me," Luke promised, "it can be like old times. The three of us together. Fighting for a better world. Please, Thalia, if you don't agree…"

His voice faltered. "It's my last chance. He will use the other way if you don't agree. Please."

Percy didn't know what Luke meant, but the fear in his voice sounded real enough. He believed that Luke was in danger.

His life depended on Thalia's joining his cause. And Percy was afraid Thalia might believe it, too.

"Do not, Thalia," Zoe warned. "We must fight them."

Luke waved his hand again, and a fire appeared. A bronze brazier, just like the one at camp. A sacrificial flame.

"Thalia," Percy said. "No."

The Doctor stepped forward. There was a strange light in his eyes, the one Percy had seen when the Doctor spoke of Annabeth. Warmth and affection tinged with sadness. "Luke," he pleaded in a low voice. "You don't have to do this. Turn back, come with me, do something other than this, and I'll help you. I'll get you away from here, keep you safe. Please, if only for the sake of Thalia and Annabeth… stop this."

Luke shook his head, and Percy could have sworn a tear rolled down Luke's cheek. "I can't. I'm sorry, Doctor, but I can't turn back."

Behind Luke, the golden sarcophagus began to glow. As it did, Percy saw images in the mist all around them: black marble walls rising, the ruins becoming whole, a terrible and beautiful palace bursting forth, made of fear and shadow.

"We will raise Mount Othrys right here," Luke promised, in a voice so strained it was hardly his. "Once more, it will be stronger and greater than Olympus. Look, Thalia. We are not weak."

He pointed toward the ocean, and Percy's heart fell. Marching up the side of the mountain, from the beach where the Princess Andromeda was docked, was a great army. Dracaenae and Lastrygonians, monsters and half-bloods, hell hounds, harpies, and other things he couldn't even name. The whole ship must've been emptied, because there were hundreds, many more than he'd seen on board last summer. And they were marching straight toward them. In a few minutes, they would be here.

"This is only a taste of what is to come," Luke said. "Soon we will be ready to storm Camp Half-Blood. And after that, Olympus itself. All we need is your help, Thalia."

For a terrible moment, Thalia hesitated. She gazed at Luke, her eyes full of pain, as if the only thing she wanted in the world was to believe him. Then she leveled her spear. "You aren't Luke. I don't know you anymore."

"Yes, you do, Thalia," he pleaded. "Please. Don't make me… Don't make him destroy you."

There was no time. If that army got to the top of the hill, Percy knew they would be overwhelmed. He met Annabeth's eyes again. She nodded.

Percy looked at Thalia, Zoe, and the Doctor, and he decided it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to die fighting with friends like this.

"Now," he said.

Together, they charged.

The Doctor ran for Annabeth, trying to free her of her bonds. Percy could tell he was talking to her, and tears were streaming down her face.

Thalia went straight for Luke. The power of her shield was so great that his dragonwomen bodyguards fled in a panic, dropping the golden coffin and leaving him alone. But despite his sickly appearance, Luke was still quick with his sword. He snarled like a wild animal and counterattacked. When his sword, Backbiter, met Thalia's shield, a ball of lightning erupted between them, frying the air with yellow tendrils of power.

As for Percy, he did what was probably the stupidest thing in his life— which was saying a lot. He attacked the Titan Lord Atlas.

He laughed as Percy approached. A huge javelin appeared in his hands. His silk suit melted into full Greek battle armor. "Go on, then!"

"Percy!" Zoe said. "Beware!"

He knew what she was warning him about. Chiron had told him long ago: Immortals are constrained by ancient rules. But a hero can go anywhere, challenge anyone, as long as he has the nerve. Once he attacked, however, Atlas was free to attack back directly, with all his might.

Percy swung his sword, and Atlas knocked him aside with the shaft of his javelin. Percy flew through the air and slammed into a black wall. It wasn't Mist anymore. The palace was rising, brick by brick. It was becoming real.

"Fool!" Atlas screamed gleefully, swatting aside one of Zoe's arrows. "Did you think, simply because you could challenge that petty war god, that you could stand up to me?"

The mention of Ares sent a jolt through Percy. He shook off the dazed feeling and charged again. If he could get to that pool of water, he could double his strength.

The javelin's point slashed toward Percy like a scythe. He raised Riptide, planning to cut off his weapon at the shaft, but his arm felt like lead. The sword suddenly weighed a ton.

And then he remembered Ares's warning, spoken on the beach in Los Angeles so long ago: When you need it most, your sword will fail you.

Not now! he pleaded. But it was no good. Percy tried to dodge, but the javelin caught him in the chest and sent him flying like a rag doll. He slammed into the ground, his head spinning. He looked up and found he was at the feet of Artemis, still straining under the weight of the sky.

"Run, boy," she told him. "You must run!"

Atlas was taking his time coming toward Percy. His sword was gone. It had skittered away over the edge of the cliff. It might reappear in his pocket— maybe in a few seconds— but it didn't matter. He'd be dead by then. Luke and Thalia were fighting like demons, lightning crackling around them. Annabeth was on the ground, clinging to the Doctor. She was shaking, afraid. Her eyes were glazed over. The Doctor was talking to her, telling her she was safe.

"Die, little hero," Atlas taunted.

He raised his javelin to impale Percy.

"No!" Zoe yelled, and a volley of silver arrows sprouted from the armpit chink in Atlas's armor.

"ARGH!" He bellowed and turned toward his daughter.

Percy reached down and felt Riptide back in his pocket. But he couldn't fight Atlas, even with a sword. And then a chill went down his back. He remembered the words of the prophecy: The Titan's curse must two withstand. One of those people was the Doctor, that much he knew— he bore the weight of his heritage. And Percy knew he couldn't hope to beat Atlas. But there was someone else who might stand a chance.

"The sky," he told the goddess. "Give it to me."

"No, boy," Artemis said. Her forehead was beaded with metallic sweat, like quicksilver. "You don't know what you're asking. It will crush you!"

"Annabeth took it!"

"She barely survived. She had the spirit of a true huntress. You will not last so long."

"I'll die anyway," he said. "Give me the weight of the sky!"

Percy didn't wait for her answer. He took out Riptide and slashed through her chains. Then he stepped next to her and braced himself on one knee— holding up his hands— and touched the cold, heavy clouds. For a moment, Percy and Artemis bore the weight together. It was the heaviest thing he'd ever felt, as if he were being crushed under a thousand trucks. He wanted to black out from the pain, but he forced himself to breathe deeply. I can do this.

Then Artemis slipped out from under the burden, and Percy held it alone.

Afterward, he tried many times to explain what it felt like. He couldn't.

Every muscle in Percy's body turned to fire. His bones felt like they were melting. He wanted to scream, but didn't have the strength to open his mouth. He began to sink, lower and lower to the ground, the sky's weight crushing him.

Fight back! Grover's voice said inside his head. Don't give up.

Percy concentrated on breathing. If he could just keep the sky aloft a few more seconds. He thought about Bianca, who had given her life just so they could get here. If she could do that, he could hold the sky.

His vision turned fuzzy. Everything was tinged with red. He caught glimpses of the battle, but wasn't sure if he was seeing clearly. There was Atlas in full battle armor, jabbing with his javelin, laughing insanely as he fought. And Artemis, a blur of silver. She had two wicked hunting knives, each as long as her arm, and she slashed wildly at the Titan, dodging and leaping with unbelievable grace. She seemed to change form as she maneuvered. She was a tiger, a gazelle, a bear, a falcon. Or perhaps that was just Percy's fevered brain. Zoe shot arrows at her father, aiming for the chinks in his armor. He roared in pain each time one found its mark, but they affected him like bee stings. He just got madder and kept fighting. The Doctor was out of sight, but Percy knew he was protecting Annabeth.

Thalia and Luke went spear on sword, lightning still flashing around them. Thalia pressed Luke back with the aura of her shield. Even he was not immune to it. He retreated, wincing and growling in frustration.

"Yield!" Thalia yelled. "You never could beat me, Luke."

He bared his teeth. "We will see, my old friend."

Sweat poured down Percy's face. His hands were slippery. His shoulders would've screamed with agony if they could. It felt like the vertebrae in his spine were being welded together with a blowtorch.

Atlas advanced, pressing Artemis. She was fast, but his strength was unstoppable. His javelin slammed into the earth where Artemis had been a split second before, and a fissure opened in the rocks. He leaped over it and kept pursuing her. She was leading him back toward me.

Get ready, she spoke in his mind.

Percy was losing his ability to think through the pain. His response was something like Agggghh-owwwwwwww.

"You fight well for a girl." Atlas laughed. "But you are no match for me."

He feinted with the tip of his javelin and Artemis dodged. Percy saw the trick coming. Atlas's javelin swept around and knocked Artemis's legs off the ground. She fell, and Atlas brought up his javelin tip for the kill.

"No!" Zoe screamed. She leaped between her father and Artemis and shot an arrow straight into the Titan's forehead, where it lodged like a unicorn's horn. Atlas bellowed in rage. He swept aside his daughter with the back of his hand, sending her flying into the black rocks.

Percy wanted to shout her name, run to her aid, but he couldn't speak or move. He couldn't even see where Zoe had landed. Then Atlas turned on Artemis with a look of triumph in his face. Artemis seemed to be wounded. She didn't get up. The Doctor's voice suddenly rang in Percy's ears, calling out Artemis's name. His shout was full of pain.

"The first blood in a new war," Atlas gloated. And he stabbed downward.

As fast as thought, Artemis grabbed his javelin shaft. It hit the earth right next to her and she pulled backward, using the javelin like a lever, kicking the Titan Lord and sending him flying over her. Percy saw him coming down on top of him, and he realized what would happen. He loosened his grip on the sky, and as Atlas slammed into Percy, he didn't try to hold on. He let himself be pushed out of the way and rolled for all he was worth.

The weight of the sky dropped onto Atlas's back, almost smashing him flat until he managed to get to his knees, struggling to get out from under the crushing weight of the sky. But it was too late.

"Noooooo!" He bellowed so hard it shook the mountain. "Not again!"

Atlas was trapped under his old burden.

Percy tried to stand and fell back again, dazed from pain. His body felt like it was burning up.

Thalia backed Luke to the edge of a cliff, but still they fought on, next to the golden coffin. Thalia had tears in her eyes. Luke had a bloody slash across his chest and his pale face glistened with sweat.

He lunged at Thalia and she slammed him with her shield. Luke's sword spun out of his hands and clattered to the rocks. Thalia put her spear point to his throat.

For a moment, there was silence.

"Well?" Luke asked. He tried to hide it, but Percy could hear the fear in his voice.

Thalia trembled with fury.

Behind her, Annabeth came scrambling, finally out of her fear-stricken daze. Her face was bruised and streaked with dirt. "Don't kill him!"

"He's a traitor," Thalia said. "A traitor!" Her voice shook with rage and something that she was trying to conceal: pain.

In his daze, Percy realized that Artemis was no longer with him. She had run off toward the black rocks where Zoe had fallen.

"We'll bring Luke back," Annabeth pleaded. "To Olympus. He… he'll be useful."

"Is that what you want, Thalia?" Luke sneered. "To go back to Olympus in triumph? To please your father?"

The Doctor spoke up then. "Luke, please. Your friends, your family… they don't want this for you. You've hurt them. Does that mean nothing to you?"

Pain flickered across Luke's bloodshot eyes. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and thin, but still full of anger. "You were like a father to me, Doctor. I looked up to you. Wanted to be like you. All those times you helped me and Thalia… we never wanted for anything. And yet… where were you when Thalia gave her life on Half-Blood Hill? The one time I really needed you, you weren't there. That was when I knew what I had to do."

Thalia bared her teeth at him. "It wasn't the Doctor's fault and you know it! I know it, Percy knows it, Annabeth knows it! Why can't you stop being angry about what happened?"

To Percy's shock, Luke's eyes softened. If he hadn't looked so ill, Percy would've thought he looked just like the head counselor he'd met during his first summer at Camp Half-Blood. No anger, scorn, or mockery. "You of all people should know why, Thalia," he murmured. A tear fell from Luke's eye.

Before she had time to react, he leaned to the side, whispering something in her ear. Thalia froze, her eyes widening. She opened her mouth, probably to say something, but didn't get the chance. As quickly as he had first leaned to the side to speak to her, Luke bent down and pressed his lips to hers.

Thalia didn't even flinch. She didn't move at all, other than shutting her eyes. Percy saw Luke slip something into Thalia's jacket pocket. A heartbeat later, he pulled away from her. His eyes were filled with pain, and tears rolled down Thalia's face.

"Go ahead, then," Luke said, glancing at her spear. "Kill me." He didn't sound angry, and he wasn't trying to taunt her. He just seemed… tired. Like he just wanted everything to be over.

Thalia hesitated, and Luke made a desperate grab for her spear.

"No!" Annabeth shouted. But it was too late. Without thinking, Thalia kicked Luke away. He lost his balance, terror on his face, and fell.

"Luke!" Annabeth screamed. Thalia said nothing, but her skin had gone a ghostly shade of white. Unbeknownst to Percy, Luke's parting words that he had whispered where echoing in Thalia's mind.

I'm sorry, Thalia. I love you.

They rushed to the cliff's edge. Below them, the army from the Princess Andromeda had stopped in amazement. They were staring at Luke's broken form on the rocks. Despite how much he hated him, Percy couldn't stand to see it. He wanted to believe Luke was still alive, but that was impossible. The fall was fifty feet, at least, and he wasn't moving.

One of the giants looked up and growled, "Kill them!"

Thalia was stiff with grief, tears still streaming down her cheeks. Percy pulled her back as a wave of javelins sailed over their heads. They ran for the rocks, ignoring the curses and threats of Atlas as they passed.

"Artemis!" the Doctor yelled, rushing to her side.

The goddess looked up, her face almost as grief-stricken as Thalia's. Zoe lay in the goddess's arms. She was breathing. Her eyes were open. Even so…

"The wound is poisoned," Artemis said.

"Atlas poisoned her?" Percy asked.

"No," the goddess said. "Not Atlas."

She showed them the wound in Zoe's side. Percy had almost forgotten her scrape with Ladon the dragon. The bite was much worse than Zoe had let on. He could barely look at the wound. She had charged into battle against her father with a horrible cut already sapping her strength.

"The stars," Zoe murmured. "I cannot see them."

"Hold on, Zoe," the Doctor said softly. "You're gonna be alright."

"Nectar and ambrosia," Percy said. "Come on! We have to get her some."

No one moved. Grief hung in the air. The army of Kronos was just below the rise. Even Artemis was too shocked to stir. They might've met their doom right then and there, but then there was a strange buzzing noise.

Just as the army of monsters came over the hill, a Sopwith Camel swooped down out of the sky.

"Get away from my daughter!" Dr. Chase called down, and his machine guns burst to life, peppering the ground with bullet holes and startling the whole group of monsters into scattering.

"Dad?" Annabeth yelled in disbelief.

"Run!" he called back, his voice growing fainter as the biplane swooped by.

That shook Artemis out of her grief. She stared up at the antique plane, which was banking around for another strafe.

"A brave man," Artemis said with grudging approval. "Come. We must get Zoe away from here."

She raised her hunting horn to her lips, and its clear sound echoed down the valleys of Marin. Zoe's eyes were fluttering.

"Hang in there!" Percy told her. "It'll be all right!"

The Sopwith Camel swooped down again. A few giants threw javelins, and one flew straight between the wings of the plane, but the machine guns blazed. Percy realized with amazement that somehow, Dr. Chase must've gotten hold of celestial bronze to fashion his bullets. The first row of snake women wailed as the machine gun's volley blew them into sulfurous yellow powder.

"That's… my dad!" Annabeth said in amazement.

No one else had time to admire his flying. The giants and snake women were already recovering from their surprise. Dr. Chase would be in trouble soon.

Just then, the moonlight brightened, and a silver chariot appeared from the sky, drawn by the most beautiful deer Percy had ever seen. It landed right next to them.

"Get in," Artemis said.

The Doctor was pushing buttons on his screwdriver rapidly, but Artemis's shout stopped him. "There's no time! We can come back for your machine later! Please, come with us. Just this once."

He sighed. "Fine, fine!"

Annabeth helped Percy get Thalia on board, while the Doctor helped Artemis with Zoe. They wrapped Zoe in a blanket as Artemis pulled the reins and the chariot sped away from the mountain, straight into the air.

"Like Santa Claus's sleigh," Percy murmured, still dazed with pain.

Artemis took time to look back at him. "Indeed, young half-blood. And where do you think that legend came from?"

Seeing them safely away, Dr. Chase turned his biplane and followed like an honor guard. It must have been one of the strangest sights ever, even for the Bay Area: a silver flying chariot pulled by deer, escorted by a Sopwith Camel.

Behind them, the army of Kronos roared in anger as they gathered on the summit of Mount Tamalpais, but the loudest sound was the voice of Atlas, bellowing curses against the gods as he struggled under the weight of the sky.

Chapter Text

The chariot landed at Crissy Field after nightfall.

As soon as Dr. Chase stepped out of his Sopwith Camel, Annabeth ran to him and gave him a huge hug. "Dad! You flew… you shot… oh my gods! That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!"

Her father blushed. "Well, not bad for a middle-aged mortal, I suppose."

"But the celestial bronze bullets! How did you get those?"

"Ah, well. You did leave quite a few half-blood weapons in your room in Virginia, the last time you… left."

Annabeth looked down, embarrassed. Percy noticed Dr. Chase was very careful not to say ran away.

"I decided to try melting some down to make bullet casings," he continued. "Just a little experiment."

He said it like it was no big deal, but he had a gleam in his eye. Percy could understand all of a sudden why Athena, Goddess of Crafts and Wisdom, had taken a liking to him. He was an excellent mad scientist at heart.

"Dad…" Annabeth faltered.

"Annabeth, Percy," Thalia interrupted. Her voice was urgent. She, and Artemis were kneeling at Zoe's side, binding the huntress's wounds. The Doctor was holding her hand, and she was gripping him so tightly that his fingertips turned completely white— she was probably in a lot of pain.

Annabeth and Percy ran over to help, but there wasn't much they could do. They had no ambrosia or nectar. No regular medicine would help. It was dark, but Percy could see that Zoe didn't look good. She was shivering, and the faint glow that usually hung around her was fading.

"Can't you heal her with magic?" he asked Artemis. "I mean… you're a goddess."

Artemis looked troubled. "Life is a fragile thing, Percy. If the Fates will the string to be cut, there is little I can do. But I can try."

Then the Doctor spoke up. "There is something I could do that might help. The rest of you, just… don't ask questions, all right?" They all nodded.

The Doctor held out his free hand, stretched out his fingers. His eyes closed. For a moment, Percy wondered just what in the world he was doing, then a strange golden light filled his palm.

Annabeth's jaw dropped. "You're—"

"Regenerative energy," he replied. "It could heal her."

He moved to lay his hand on the Hunter's wounded side, but she gripped his wrist tightly. "No." Then she turned her head to look at Artemis. "Have I… served thee well?" Zoe whispered.

"With great honor," Artemis said softly. "The finest of my attendants."

Zoe's face relaxed. "Rest. At last."

"We can try to heal the poison, my brave one."

In that moment, Percy realized it wasn't just the poison that was killing her. It was her father's final blow. Zoe had known all along that the Oracle's prophecy was about her: she would die by a parent's hand. And yet she'd taken the quest anyway. She had chosen to save Percy, and Atlas's fury had broken her inside.

She looked back at the Doctor, and her eyes softened. "You are wounded. Heal yourself. Please."

Percy hadn't noticed until Zoe mentioned it, but he realized the Doctor had a rather nasty-looking cut on the side of his face. He'd probably gotten it during their battle with Atlas.

He sighed. Reluctantly, he drew his palm to the cut on his cheek, placing his hand on the wound. The golden glow intensified for a moment, then died out. When the Doctor moved his hand away from the injury, he saw that the wound was gone— not even a trace of it remained.

Zoe's gaze shifted to Thalia, and she took her hand.

"I am sorry we argued," Zoe said. "We could have been sisters."

"It's my fault," Thalia said, blinking hard. "You were right about Luke, about heroes, men— everything."

"Perhaps not all men," Zoe murmured. She smiled weakly at Percy. "Do you still have the sword?"

He couldn't speak, but he brought out Riptide and put the pen in her hand. She grasped it contentedly. "You spoke the truth, Percy Jackson. You are nothing like… like Hercules. I am honored that you carry this sword."

A shudder ran through her body.

"Zoe—" he said, choked.

"Stars," she whispered. "I can see the stars again, my lady."

A tear trickled down Artemis's cheek. "Yes, my brave one. They are beautiful tonight."

Zoe's eyes flitted over to the Doctor. "I no longer fear their lands. I can see how… how wondrous they are." Tears pooled in the man's eyes at her words.

"Stars," Zoe repeated. Her eyes fixed on the night sky. And she did not move again.

Thalia lowered her head. Annabeth gulped down a sob, and her father put his hands on her shoulders. Tears streamed down the Doctor's face, much like when Bianca had vanished in the desert. Percy watched as Artemis cupped her hand above Zoe's mouth and spoke a few words in Ancient Greek. A silvery wisp of smoke exhaled from Zoe's lips and was caught in the hand of the goddess. Zoe's body shimmered and disappeared.

Artemis stood, said a kind of blessing, breathed into her cupped hand and released the silver dust to the sky. It flew up, sparkling, and vanished.

For a moment, Percy didn't see anything different. Then Annabeth gasped. Looking up in the sky, he saw that the stars were brighter now. They made a pattern he had never noticed before— a gleaming constellation that looked a lot like a girl's figure. A girl with a bow, running across the sky.

"Let the world honor you, my Huntress," Artemis said. "Live forever in the stars."

Saying their goodbyes was not easy. The thunder and lightning were still boiling over Mount Tamalpais in the north. Artemis was so upset she flickered with silver light. This made Percy nervous, because if she suddenly lost control and appeared in her fully divine form, they all would disintegrate by looking at her.

"I must go to Olympus immediately," Artemis said. "I will not be able to take you, but I will send help."

The goddess set her hand on Annabeth's shoulder. "You are brave beyond measure, my girl. You will do what is right."

Then she looked quizzically at Thalia, as if she weren't sure what to make of the younger daughter of Zeus. Thalia seemed reluctant to look up, but something made her, and she held the goddess's eyes. Percy wasn't sure what passed between them, but Artemis's gaze softened with sympathy. Then she turned to the Doctor.

"Doctor… I am pleased to have you as my friend," she murmured. "Granted, you are an idiot, but… you have good intentions." A smile appeared on the corners of the goddess's mouth, and the Doctor chuckled. "Well, that is high praise. 'An idiot with good intentions.' Put that on my tombstone, would you?"

Much to Percy's surprise, the goddess laughed softly. Then she turned to face him.

"You did well, Percy Jackson," she said. "For a man."

Percy wanted to protest. But then he realized it was the first time she hadn't called him a boy.

She mounted her chariot, which began to glow. Everyone averted their eyes. There was a flash of silver, and the goddess was gone.

"Well," Dr. Chase sighed. "She was impressive. Though I must say I still prefer Athena."

Annabeth turned toward him. "Dad, I… I'm sorry that—"

"Shh." He hugged her. "Do what you must, my dear. I know this isn't easy for you."

His voice was a little shaky, but he gave Annabeth a brave smile.

Then Annabeth walked over to the Doctor, grinning widely. "Come here, you," she said teasingly, and threw her arms around him. He smiled, kissed the top of her head. Annabeth laughed. "I really missed you, Doc, you know that?"

"I missed you too, love," he murmured, running a hand through her hair. Then his brow furrowed. "Hey, wait a minute. Did you just call me 'Doc'? We have a rule about calling me that, which is don't do it."

She pulled away from him, still smiling. "Sorry, Doctor. I couldn't resist." Then she stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. "I have got so much to tell you about! You would not believe—"

Suddenly, there was a woosh of large wings, as well as a wheezing sound— the noise the TARDIS made when it materialized. The TARDIS faded into view at the same time as three pegasi touched down— two of them white, one of them solid black. Dr. Chase looked about ready to faint when he saw the phone booth. "Good Lord. How does that work?"

"Long story, sir," the Doctor replied. "A very long story. All you need to know is that the phone booth belongs to me and will be out of here shortly. Don't worry about it."

"Blackjack!" Percy called out.

Yo, boss! he said back. You manage to stay alive okay without me?

"It was rough," Percy admitted.

I brought Guido and Porkpie with me.

How ya doin? The other two pegasi spoke in his mind.

Blackjack looked Percy over with concern, then checked out Dr. Chase, Thalia, the Doctor, and Annabeth. Any of these goons you want us to stampede?

"Nah," he said aloud. "These are my friends. We need to get to Olympus pretty fast."

The Doctor grinned, stepped over to the pegasus. "Well, I'm a little insulted, Blackjack. You don't remember me?"

Holy cow, Blackjack shouted. Doc! You're alive!

He chuckled. "Well, of course I'm alive, what do you think? Don't worry about me, just get them to Olympus."

No problem, Blackjack said. Except for the other mortal over there. Hope he's not going.

Percy stepped in then, reassured them that Dr. Chase was not. The professor was staring openmouthed at the pegasi.

"Fascinating," he said. "Such maneuverability! How does the wingspan compensate for the weight of the horse's body, I wonder?"

Blackjack cocked his head. Whaaaat? The Doctor laughed at that.

"Why, if the British had had these pegasi in the cavalry charges on the Crimea," Dr. Chase said, "the charge of the light brigade—"

"Dad!" Annabeth interrupted.

Dr. Chase blinked. He looked at his daughter and managed a smile. "I'm sorry, my dear, I know you must go."

He gave her one last awkward, well-meaning hug. As she turned to climb aboard the pegasus Guido, Dr. Chase called, "Annabeth. I know… I know San Francisco is a dangerous place for you. But please remember, you always have a home with us. We will keep you safe."

Annabeth didn't answer, but her eyes were red as she turned away. Dr. Chase started to say more, then apparently thought better of it. He raised his hand in a sad farewell and trudged away across the dark field.

Once he had gone, the Doctor told Percy, Annabeth, and Thalia that he would meet them on Olympus. He turned away and headed into the TARDIS, and the three of them watched as it faded away.

Then they mounted their pegasi. Together, they soared over the bay and flew toward the eastern hills. Soon San Francisco was only a glittering crescent behind them, with an occasional flicker of lightning in the north.

Thalia was so exhausted she fell asleep on Porkpie's back. Percy knew she must have been really tired to sleep in the air, despite her fear of heights, but she didn't have much to worry about. Her pegasus flew with ease, adjusting himself every once in a while, so Thalia stayed safely on his back.

Annabeth and Percy flew along side by side.

"Your dad seems cool," he told her.

It was too dark for him to see her expression. She looked back, even though California was far behind them now.

"I guess so," she said. "We've been arguing for so many years."

"Yeah, you said."

"You think I was lying about that?" It sounded like a challenge, but a pretty halfhearted one, like she was asking it of herself.

"I didn't say you were lying. It's just… he seems okay. Your stepmom, too. Maybe they've, uh, gotten cooler since you saw them last."

She hesitated. "They're still in San Francisco, Percy. I can't live so far from camp."

Percy didn't want to ask his next question. He was scared to know the answer. But he asked it anyway. "So… what are you going to do now?"

They flew over a town, an island of lights in the middle of the dark. It whisked by so fast they could have been in an airplane.

"I don't know," she admitted. Then she sighed. "Worst comes to worst, I can always ask the Doctor for help. He's good at helping people."

Percy nodded. "Yeah. He is." Then he chuckled. "He's really weird, though."

Annabeth rolled her eyes. "He's a Time Lord, Percy. Of course he's weird." Then she chuckled. "He never told me what he was, you know. I didn't figure it out until he tried to… tried to heal Zoe. I was so shocked, because I… I thought they were all gone."

Percy thought back to what the Doctor had said when they confronted Atlas. "I think he's the only one left. He said he was the last one."

"That would be… really sad, if it was me," she replied. "Can you imagine being the last human? That would be awful."

Percy nodded in agreement. "Yeah, it would be lonely." Then his brow furrowed. "Wait, how did you know about the Time Lords? Did you… read about them, or something?"

Annabeth nodded. "Kronos used to rule over two worlds. One of them was Earth. The other was called Gallifrey. The planet was conquered by Kronos. He had children with many of its inhabitants, the Gallifreyans. These children were born with the ability to see timelines and sometimes even manipulate them. Due to all of the technology already on that planet, before long, these children created time travel and a number of other things. Their power over time was what led their people to call them Time Lords. Their powers got… diluted, through the generations, but they were still revered among the inhabitants of the planet. It was like a special rank. I don't know all the details, though."

"Whoa. So… why did Kronos even conquer this… Gallifrey, in the first place?"

Annabeth shrugged. "Who knows? Lust for power, probably. But it contributed to his downfall. One of the Time Lords, called… Rassilon, I think, was instrumental in sending Kronos back to his homeworld and subsequently Tartarus. Believe me, it took a lot of digging to find this stuff out. The gods don't like people knowing that they didn't get rid of Kronos by themselves, or that his descendants are still out there. Well, descendant, now." She sighed. "There was a horrible war between the Time Lords and an enemy race called the Daleks. Burned the planet to its core, and killed all of the Time Lords. Except for the Doctor, I suppose."

"That's awful." Despite the weighty turn the conversation had taken, Percy still had a thousand questions. "Did they have any other abilities? Besides time travel and… whatever that glowy thing was."

"Regenerative energy, Seaweed Brain," she replied. "The Gallifreyans already knew of what was called the Web of Time— which Kronos is connected to, by the way— but couldn't access it until the Time Lords came along. The Web gave them regenerative abilities. Whenever a Time Lord sustained a fatal injury or illness, he or she would regenerate, replacing every cell in their body. New face, new personality quirks, sometimes even a whole new gender. That's what that 'glowy thing' was."

Percy's eyes widened. "So, like, if something really bad were to happen to the Doctor, he could regenerate. New face, new body." When she nodded, he continued. "And he could also turn into a girl? Like, there's a chance of that?"

She nodded again. "And to answer your other question, the Time Lords were also telepathic— they got that from both sides. Gallifreyans and Titans have telepathy. And they were really, really smart— like, naturally ten times smarter than the smartest human being. I think that came from the Gallifreyans. Oh, and they didn't exactly age. Again, that came from both sides. They only aged in like, their first and last bodies, and even that took a long time."

Percy raised an eyebrow. "So… they're basically immortal."

"No," Annabeth replied. "They could only regenerate a limited number of times. It was possible for them to die permanently."

"Huh. Okay. How long did they live, then, on average?"

"On average?" Annabeth echoed. "I think it was about… oh, ten thousand years, give or take."

"Hold up. Did you just say ten thousand years? That's crazy!"

She shrugged. "To us, maybe. But to them… it was normal." Then she sighed. "By the way… thanks for rescuing me."

"Hey, no big deal. We're friends." Percy smirked.

"You didn't believe I was dead?"


She hesitated. "Neither is Luke, you know. I mean… he isn't dead."

He stared at her. He didn't know if she was cracking under the stress or what. "Annabeth, that fall was pretty bad. There's no way—"

"He isn't dead," she insisted. "I know it. The same way you knew about me."

That comparison didn't make Percy too happy.

The towns were zipping by faster, islands of light thicker together, until the whole landscape below was a glittering carpet. Dawn was close. The eastern sky was turning gray. And up ahead, a huge white-and-yellow glow spread out before them— the lights of New York.

How's that for speedy, boss? Blackjack bragged. We get extra hay for breakfast or what?

"You're the man, Blackjack," Percy told him. "Er, the horse, I mean."

"You don't believe me about Luke," Annabeth said, "but we'll see him again. He's in trouble, Percy. He's under Kronos's spell."

He didn't feel like arguing, though it made him mad. How could she still have any feelings for that creep? How could she possibly make excuses for him? He deserved that fall. He deserved… okay, he'd say it. Luke deserved to die. Unlike Bianca. Unlike Zoe. Luke couldn't be alive. It wouldn't be fair.

Then he thought back to the way Luke had all but begged Thalia to kill him. The way he had kissed her so suddenly. What was his real plan?

"There it is." Thalia's voice suddenly cut in. She'd woken up. She pointed toward Manhattan, which was quickly zooming into view. "It's started."

"What's started?" Percy asked.

Then he looked where she was pointing. High above the Empire State Building, Olympus was its own island of light, a floating mountain ablaze with torches and braziers, white marble palaces gleaming in the early morning air.

"The winter solstice," Thalia said. "The Council of the Gods."

Chapter Text

Flying was bad enough for a son of Poseidon, but flying straight up to Zeus's palace, with thunder and lightning swirling around it, was even worse.

The pegasi circled over midtown Manhattan, making one complete orbit around Mount Olympus. Percy had only been there once before, traveling by elevator up to the secret six hundredth floor of the Empire State Building. This time, if it was possible, Olympus amazed him even more.

In the early-morning darkness, torches and fires made the mountainside palaces glow twenty different colors, from bloodred to indigo. Apparently, no one ever slept on Olympus. The twisting streets were full of demigods and nature spirits and minor godlings bustling about, riding chariots or sedan chairs carried by Cyclopes. Winter didn't seem to exist there. Percy caught the scent of the gardens in full bloom, jasmine and roses and even sweeter things he couldn't name. Music drifted up from many windows, the soft sounds of lyres and reed pipes.

Towering at the peak of the mountain was the greatest palace of all, the glowing white hall of the gods.

The pegasi set them down in the outer courtyard, in front of huge silver gates. Percy caught sight of the TARDIS sitting in one corner of the yard. He wondered whether the Doctor was already inside. Before he could even think to knock, the gates opened by themselves.

Good luck, boss, Blackjack said.

"Yeah." Percy didn't know why, but he had a foreboding sense of doom. He'd never seen all the gods together. He knew any one of them could blast him to dust, and a few of them would have liked to.

Hey, if ya don't come back, can I have your cabin for my stable?

He looked at the pegasus incredulously.

Just a thought, he replied. Sorry.

Blackjack and his friends flew off, leaving Thalia, Annabeth, and Percy alone. For a minute they stood there regarding the palace, the way they'd stood together in front of Westover Hall, what seemed like a million years ago.

And then, side by side, the three friends walked into the throne room.

 Twelve enormous thrones made a U around a central hearth, just like the placement of the cabins at camp. The ceiling above glittered with constellations— even the newest one, Zoe the Huntress, making her way across the heavens with her bow drawn.

All of the seats were occupied. Each god and goddess was about fifteen feet tall, which made facing them all the more nerve-wracking.

"Welcome, heroes," Artemis said.


That was when Percy noticed Bessie, the Doctor, and Grover.

A sphere of water was hovering in the center of the room, next to the hearth fire. Bessie was swimming happily around, swishing his serpent tail and poking his head out the sides and bottom of the sphere. He seemed to be enjoying the novelty of swimming in a magic bubble. Grover was next to the creature, keeping an eye on it. The Doctor was kneeling at Zeus's throne, as if he'd just been giving a report, but when he saw them, he cried, "You made it!"

He started to run toward them, then remembered he was turning his back on Zeus, and looked for permission. Percy suppose that even an otherworldly descendant of Kronos could be disintegrated by a god.

"Go on," Zeus said. But he wasn't really paying attention to the Doctor— or Grover, for that matter. The lord of the sky was staring intently at Thalia.

The Doctor started to walk towards them, and Grover trotted over. None of the gods spoke. Every clop of Grover's hooves echoed on the marble floor. Bessie splashed in his bubble of water. The hearth fire crackled.

Percy looked nervously at his father, Poseidon. He was dressed similarly to the last time he'd seen him: beach shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sandals. He had a weathered, suntanned face with a dark beard and deep green eyes. Percy wasn't sure how he would feel about seeing his son again, but the corners of his eyes crinkled with smile lines. He nodded, as if to say It's okay.

The Doctor gave Annabeth and Thalia big hugs. Grover grasped Percy's arms. "Percy, Bessie and I made it! But you have to convince them! They can't do it!"

"Do what?" he asked.

"Heroes," Artemis called.

The goddess slid down from her throne and turned to human size, a young auburn-haired girl, perfectly at ease in the midst of the giant Olympians. She walked toward the four of them, her silver robes shimmering. There was no emotion on her face. She seemed to walk in a column of moonlight.

"The Council has been informed of your deeds," Artemis told them. "They know that Mount Othrys is rising in the West. They know of Atlas's attempt for freedom, and the gathering armies of Kronos. We have voted to act."

There was some mumbling and shuffling among the gods, as if they weren't all happy with the plan, but no one protested.

"At my Lord Zeus's command," Artemis said, "my brother Apollo and I shall hunt the most powerful monsters, seeking to strike them down before they can join the Titans' cause. Lady Athena shall personally check on the other Titans to make sure they do not escape their various prisons. Lord Poseidon has been given permission to unleash his full fury on the cruise ship Princess Andromeda and send it to the bottom of the sea. And as for you, my heroes…"

She turned to face the other immortals. "These half-bloods and this mortal have done Olympus a great service. Would any here deny that?"

She looked around at the assembled gods, meeting their faces individually. Zeus in his dark pin-striped suit, his black beard neatly trimmed, and his eyes sparking with energy. Next to him sat a beautiful woman with silver hair braided over one shoulder and a dress that shimmered colors like peacock feathers. The Lady Hera.

On Zeus's right, Percy's father Poseidon. Next to him, a huge lump of a man with a leg in a steel brace, a misshapen head, and a wild brown beard, fire flickering through his whiskers. The Lord of the Forges, Hephaestus.

Hermes winked at them. He was wearing a business suit, checking messages on his caduceus mobile phone. Apollo leaned back in his golden throne with his shades on. He had iPod headphones on, so Percy wasn't sure he was even listening, but he gave a thumbs-up. Dionysus looked bored, twirling a grape vine between his fingers. And Ares sat on his chrome-and-leather throne, glowering at them while he sharpened a knife.

On the ladies' side of the throne room, a dark-haired goddess in green robes sat next to Hera on a throne woven of apple-tree branches. Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest. Next to her sat a beautiful black-haired, gray-eyed woman in an elegant white dress. She could only be Annabeth's mother, Athena. Then there was Aphrodite, who smiled knowingly and made Percy blush in spite of himself. For whatever reason, the Doctor refused to meet her eye. She frowned, raised an eyebrow. He met her eyes for a heartbeat, shook his head. His eyes dropped back to the floor. Her gaze softened.

Percy didn't think too much about the silent exchange between the Time Lord and the goddess of love. He was more focused on the fact that all the Olympians were in one place. So much power was in one room, it was a miracle the place didn't blow apart.

Apollo broke the silence. "I gotta say, these kids did okay." He cleared his throat and began to recite, "Heroes win laurels—"

"Um, yes, first class," Hermes interrupted, like he was anxious to avoid Apollo's poetry. "All in favor of not disintegrating them?"

A few tentative hands went up— Demeter, Aphrodite.

"Wait just a minute," Ares growled. He pointed at the Doctor, Thalia, and Percy. "These three are dangerous. It'd be much safer, while we've got them here—"

"Ares," Poseidon interrupted, "they are worthy heroes. We will not blast my son to bits."

"Nor my daughter," Zeus grumbled. "She has done well."

Thalia blushed. She studied the floor. Percy knew how she felt. He'd hardly ever talked to his father, much less gotten a compliment.

The goddess Athena cleared her throat and sat forward. "I am proud of my daughter as well. And the Doctor is not as much of a danger as one may think. He may be powerful and intelligent, but he is also wise and compassionate. Not a threat." The Doctor looked genuinely surprised at her comments.

"But there is a security risk here with the other two," she went on.

"Mother!" Annabeth exclaimed in protest. "How can you—"

Athena cut her off with a calm but firm look. "It is unfortunate that my father, Zeus, and my uncle, Poseidon, chose to break their oath not to have more children. Only Hades kept his word, a fact that I find ironic. As we know from the Great Prophecy, children of the three elder gods, such as Thalia and Percy, are dangerous. As thickheaded as he is, Ares has a point."

"Right!" Ares said. "Hey, wait a minute. Who are you callin'—"

He started to get up, but a grape vine grew around his waist like a seat belt and pulled him back down.

"Oh, please, Ares," Dionysus sighed. "Save the fighting for later."

Ares cursed and ripped away the vine. "You're one to talk, you old drunk. You seriously want to protect these brats?"

Dionysus gazed down at them wearily. "I have no love for them— or the Doctor, for that matter. Athena, do you truly think it safest to destroy them?"

"I do not pass judgment," Athena said. "I only point out the risk. What we do, the Council must decide."

"I will not have them punished," Artemis said. "I will have them rewarded. If we destroy heroes who do us a great favor, then we are no better than the Titans. If this is Olympian justice, I will have none of it."

"Calm down, sis," Apollo cut in. "Jeez, you need to lighten up."

"Don't call me sis! I will reward them."

"Well," Zeus grumbled. "Perhaps. But the monster at least must be destroyed. We have agreement on that?"

A lot of nodding heads.

It took Percy a second to realize what they were saying. Then his heart turned to lead. "Bessie? You want to destroy Bessie?"

"Mooooooo!" Bessie protested.

Poseidon frowned. "You have named the Ophiotaurus… Bessie?"

"Dad," Percy said, "he's just a sea creature. A really nice sea creature. You can't destroy him."

Poseidon shifted uncomfortably. "Percy, the monster's power is considerable. If the Titans were to steal it, or—"

"You can't," Percy insisted. He looked over at Zeus. He probably should have been afraid of him, but Percy stared his uncle right in the eye. "Controlling the prophecies never works. Isn't that true? Besides, Bess— the Ophiotaurus is innocent. Killing something like that is wrong. It's just as wrong as… as Kronos eating his children, just because of something they might do. It's wrong!"

The Doctor nodded, his face somber. "Hurting something innocent to control a perceived fate is always wrong. Kronos eating his children, killing innocence… forcing a young child to go mad to set a plan in motion. It's all the same. It's all horribly, horribly wrong."

Percy knew the Doctor must have been thinking of a specific event when he mentioned that last act. But he had no idea who or what the Doctor was referring to.

Zeus seemed to consider this, frowning thoughtfully. "What happened to your friend was not a result of our actions, Doctor." His eyes drifted to his daughter Thalia. "And what of the risk? Kronos knows full well, if one of you were to sacrifice the beast's entrails, you would have the power to destroy us. Do you think we can let that possibility remain? You, my daughter, will turn sixteen on the morrow, just as the prophecy says."

"You have to trust them," Annabeth spoke up. "Sir, you have to trust them."

Zeus scowled. "Trust a hero?"

"Annabeth is right," Artemis said. "Which is why I must first make a reward. My faithful companion, Zoe Nightshade, has passed into the stars. I must have a new lieutenant. And I intend to choose one. But first, Father Zeus, I must speak to you privately."

Zeus beckoned Artemis forward. He leaned down and listened as she spoke in his ear.

A feeling of panic seized Percy. "Annabeth," he said under his breath. "Don't."

She frowned at him. "What?"

"Look, I need to tell you something," he continued. The words came stumbling out. "I couldn't stand it if… I don't want you to—"

"Percy?" she said. "You look like you're going to be sick."

That was how he felt. Percy wanted to say more, but his tongue betrayed him. It wouldn't move because of the fear in his stomach. And then Artemis turned.

"I shall have a new lieutenant," she announced. "If she will accept it."

"No," he murmured.

"Thalia," Artemis said. "Daughter of Zeus. Will you join the Hunt?"

Stunned silence filled the room. Percy stared at Thalia, unable to believe what he was hearing. Annabeth smiled. She squeezed Thalia's hand and let it go, as if she'd been expecting this all along. The Doctor smiled at her warmly, placed a hand on her shoulder.

"I will," Thalia said firmly.

Zeus rose, his eyes full of concern. "My daughter, consider well—"

"Father," she said. "I will not turn sixteen tomorrow. I will never turn sixteen. I won't let this prophecy be mine. I stand with my sister Artemis. Kronos will never tempt me again."

She knelt before the goddess and began the words Percy remembered from Bianca's oath, what seemed like so long ago. "I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis. I turn my back on the company of men…"

Afterward, Thalia did something that surprised him almost as much as the pledge. She came over to him, smiled, and in front of the whole assembly, gave him a big hug.

Percy blushed.

When she pulled away and gripped his shoulders, Percy said, "Um… aren't you supposed to not do that anymore? Hug boys, I mean?"

"I'm honoring a friend," she corrected. "I must join the Hunt, Percy. I haven't known peace since… since Half-Blood Hill. I finally feel like I have a home. But you're a hero. You will be the one of the prophecy."

"Great," Percy muttered.

"I'm proud to be your friend."

Then she turned toward the Doctor. She stood directly in front of him, standing on her toes to meet his eye. "And you. First things first…"
She drew back her hand and slapped him in the face, hard. "Ow! What the hell was that for?!" he exclaimed in protest.

"That's for all the times you were an idiot and nearly got yourself killed! And this is for saving our lives."

She wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. He raised an eyebrow, but returned the embrace. When she pulled away, she was grinning. "Take care of yourself, pretty boy."

"I will if you stop calling me that," he shot back. She rolled her eyes. "Not a chance."

She hugged Annabeth, who was trying hard not to cry. Then she even hugged Grover, who looked ready to pass out, like somebody had just given him an all-you-can-eat enchilada coupon.

Then Thalia went to stand by Artemis's side.

"Now for the Ophiotaurus," Artemis said.

"This boy is still dangerous," Dionysus warned. "The beast is a temptation to great power. Even if we spare the boy—"

"No." Percy looked around at all the gods. "Please. Keep the Ophiotaurus safe. My dad can hide him under the sea somewhere, or keep him in an aquarium here in Olympus. But you have to protect him."

"And why should we trust you?" rumbled Hephaestus.

"I'm only fourteen," he said. "If this prophecy is about me, that's two more years."

"Two years for Kronos to deceive you," Athena murmured. "Much can change in two years, my young hero."

"Mother!" Annabeth said, exasperated.

"It is only the truth, child. It is bad strategy to keep the animal alive. Or the boy."

The Doctor turned to face her. "Lady Athena, with all due respect, Percy here is not easily swayed. I don't believe it'd be easy for Kronos to trick him. I think he can be trusted."

Percy went red, much like when Zeus had spoken highly of Thalia. Being given such praise felt… strange. Good, but strange.

Poseidon stood. "I will not have a sea creature destroyed, if I can help it. And I can help it."

He held out his hand, and a trident appeared in it: a twenty-foot-long bronze shaft with three spear tips that shimmered with blue, watery light. "I will vouch for the boy and the safety of the Ophiotaurus."

"You won't take it under the sea!" Zeus stood suddenly. "I won't have that kind of bargaining chip in your possession."

"Brother, please," Poseidon sighed.

Zeus's lightning bolt appeared in his hand, a shaft of electricity that filled the whole room with the smell of ozone.

"Fine," Poseidon said. "I will build an aquarium for the creature here. Hephaestus can help me. The creature will be safe. We shall protect it with all our powers. The boy will not betray us. I vouch for this on my honor."

Zeus thought about this. "All in favor?"

To Percy's surprise, a lot of hands went up. Dionysus abstained. So did Ares. After a moment of hesitation, Athena raised her hand. Everyone else agreed, as well.

"We have a majority," Zeus decreed. "And so, since we will not be destroying these heroes… I imagine we should honor them. Let the triumph celebration begin!"

 The celebration was unlike any that Percy had ever been to. Even the wildest of parties couldn't compare to an Olympian celebration.

The Nine Muses provided the music, which varied depending on whatever the listener wanted to hear. Because of this, no one argued over changing it, only requested that it be louder.

Dionysus went around growing refreshment stands out of the ground, and a beautiful woman walked with him arm-in-arm— his wife, Ariadne. Dionysus looked happy for the first time since Percy had met him. Nectar and ambrosia overflowed from golden fountains, and platters of mortal snack food crowded the banquet tables. Golden goblets filled with whatever drink the holder wanted. Grover trotted around with a full plate of tin cans and enchiladas, and his goblet was full of double-espresso latte, while he kept muttering over and over like an incantation: "Pan! Pan!"

Gods kept coming over to congratulate Percy. Thankfully, they had reduced themselves to human size, so they didn't accidentally trample partygoers under their feet. Hermes started chatting with him, and he was so cheerful Percy hated to tell him what had happened to his least favorite son, Luke, but before he could even get up the courage, Hermes got a call on his caduceus and walked away.

Apollo told Percy he could drive the sun chariot any time, and if he ever wanted archery lessons—

"Thanks," he told him. "But seriously, I'm no good at archery."

"Ah, nonsense," Apollo said. "Target practice from the chariot as we fly over the US? Best fun there is!"

Percy made some excuses and wove through the crowds that were dancing in the palace courtyards. He was looking for Annabeth. Last he'd seen her, she'd been dancing with some minor godling.

Then a man's voice behind him said, "You won't let me down, I hope."

He turned and found Poseidon smiling at him.

"Dad… hi."

"Hello, Percy. You've done well."

His praise made Percy uneasy. It felt good, but he knew just how much his father had put himself on the line, vouching for him. It would've been a lot easier to let the others disintegrate Percy.

"I won't let you down," he promised.

Poseidon nodded. Percy had trouble reading gods' emotions, but he wondered if his father had some doubts.

"Your friend Luke—"

"He's not my friend," Percy blurted out. Then he realized it was probably rude to interrupt. "Sorry."

"Your former friend Luke," Poseidon corrected. "He once promised things like that. He was Hermes's pride and joy. Just bear that in mind, Percy. Even the bravest can fall."

"Luke fell pretty hard," Percy agreed. "He's dead."

Poseidon shook his head. "No, Percy. He is not."

Percy stared at him blankly. "What?"

"I believe Annabeth told you this. Luke still lives. I have seen it. His boat sails from San Francisco with the remains of Kronos even now. He will retreat and regroup before assaulting you again. I will do my best to destroy his boat with storms, but he is making alliances with my enemies, the older spirits of the ocean. They will fight to protect him."

"How can he be alive?" Percy said. "That fall should've killed him!"

Poseidon looked troubled. "I don't know, Percy, but beware of him. He is more dangerous than ever. And the golden coffin is still with him, still growing in strength."

"What about Atlas?" Percy said. "What's to prevent him from escaping again? Couldn't he just force some giant or something to take the sky for him?"

His father snorted in derision. "If it were so easy, he would have escaped long ago. No, my son. The curse of the sky can only be forced upon a Titan, one of the children of Gaia and Ouranous. Anyone else must choose to take the burden of their own free will. Only a hero, someone with strength, a true heart, and great courage, would do such a thing. No one in Kronos's army would dare try to bear that weight, even upon pain of death."

"Luke did it," Percy argued. "He let Atlas go. Then he tricked Annabeth into saving him and used her to convince Artemis to take the sky."

"Yes," Poseidon said. "Luke is… an interesting case."

Percy thought he wanted to say more, but just then, Bessie started mooing from across the courtyard. Some demigods were playing with his water sphere, joyously pushing it back and forth over the top of the crowd.

"I'd better take care of that," Poseidon grumbled. "We can't have the Ophiotaurus tossed around like a beach ball. Be good, my son. We may not speak again for some time."

And just like that, he was gone.

That was when he heard an all-too-familiar voice from behind him: The Doctor. "Hello, Percy. Quite the celebration, don't you think?"

Percy jumped, startled, and spun around to face him. "Oh! Uh, hi. Yeah, I guess so." He cleared his throat. "Where have you been all night?"

"Oh, here and there," he said nonchalantly, smirking. "It's been a while since I was on Olympus. Thought I might revisit some old haunts. What about you, what have you been doing?"

He shrugged. "Mostly just talking to people. I was gonna try to find Annabeth, but I haven't seen her anywhere." He paused, sighed. "Can I ask you something? I mean, I know this might seem a little weird, but I could use some advice. And since we kind of defeated a Titan together, I thought maybe it would be okay to ask you for some."

The Doctor grinned, laughed to himself. "Ah, don't worry about it, Percy. You're my friend. Ask away."

His face turned slightly red. "It's about Annabeth. When I talked to Aphrodite, she… she seemed to think I was in love with her or something. And she told me to follow my heart. The thing is, though, I don't know where it's going, most days. Does it ever get easier? Figuring out where your heart's going?"

He sighed. "That depends. Sometimes it can be very, very hard to know what you really feel and what you don't. Other times, your heart is pulling you in one direction while your brain is telling you to go the opposite way. In the end, though, what matters most are the choices we make. If you really want to do something, I say go for it."

Percy looked at the floor, chuckled. "So… I guess I should ask Annabeth to dance, then. I owe her one."

When he looked back up, the Doctor smiled at Percy. "Let me tell you something. Don't hold yourself back from the little things. They can add up." He paused, sighing. "You either dance with her or design a new kind of sonic screwdriver. Don't make my mistakes."

Percy frowned. "You okay, Doc?"

He nodded. "I'm always okay. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an old friend to look for." Then he turned and left.

 Percy was about to keep searching the crowd when another voice spoke. "Your father takes a great risk, you know."

He found himself face-to-face with a gray-eyed woman who looked so much like Annabeth he almost called her that.

"Athena." He tried not to sound resentful or surprised, after the way she'd written him off in her argument, then subsequently changed her mind, but he supposed he didn't hide it too well.

She smiled dryly. "Do not judge me too harshly, half-blood. Wise counsel is not always popular, but I spoke the truth. You are dangerous."

"You never take risks?"

She nodded. "I concede the point. You may perhaps be useful. And the Doctor, who spoke up in your defense, is not only a brave ally of the gods, but also one of my most trusted friends. My mind is not yet entirely changed, but he is an excellent judge of character. Therefore, I have decided to reflect on his words. Even so, your fatal flaw may destroy us as well as yourself."

Percy's heart crept into his throat. A year ago, he and Annabeth had had a talk about fatal flaws. Every hero had one. Hers, she'd said, was pride. She believed she could do anything… like holding up the world, for instance. Or saving Luke. But Percy didn't really know what his was.

Athena looked almost sorry for him. "Kronos knows your flaw, even if you do not. He knows how to study his enemies. Think, Percy. How has he manipulated you? First, your mother was taken from you. Then your best friend, Grover. Now my daughter, Annabeth." She paused, disapproving. "In each case, your loved ones have been used to lure you into Kronos's traps. Your fatal flaw is personal loyalty, Percy. You do not know when it is time to cut your losses. To save a friend, you would sacrifice the world. In a hero of the prophecy, that is very, very dangerous."

Percy balled his fists. "That's not a flaw. Just because I want to help my friends—"

"The most dangerous flaws are those which are good in moderation," she said. "Evil is easy to fight. Lack of wisdom… that is very hard indeed."

He wanted to argue, but found he couldn't. Athena really was wise.

"I hope the Council's decisions prove wise," Athena said. "But I will be watching, Percy Jackson. I do not approve of your friendship with my daughter. I do not think it wise for either of you. And should you begin to waver in your loyalties…"

She fixed him with her cold gray stare, and in that moment, Percy realized what a terrible enemy Athena would make, ten times worse than Ares or Dionysus or maybe even Poseidon. Athena would never give up. She would never do something rash or stupid just because she hated someone, and if she made a plan to destroy anyone, it would not fail.

"Percy!" Annabeth called out, running through the crowd. She stopped short when she saw who he was talking to. "Oh… Mom."

"I will leave you," Athena said. "For now."

She turned and strode through the crowds, which parted before her as if she were carrying Aegis.

"Was she giving you a hard time?" Annabeth asked.

"No," he said. "It's… fine."

She studied Percy with concern. She touched the new streak of gray in his hair that matched hers exactly— their painful souvenir from holding Atlas's burden. There was a lot he'd wanted to say to Annabeth, but Athena had taken the confidence out of him. It felt like he'd been punched in the gut.

I do not approve of your friendship with my daughter.

"So," Annabeth said. "What did you want to tell me earlier?"

The music was playing. People were dancing in the streets. Percy said, "I, uh, was thinking… We got interrupted at Westover Hall. And… I think I owe you a dance."

She smiled slowly. "All right, Seaweed Brain."

So, he took her hand, and while he didn't know what everyone else heard, to him it sounded like a slow dance: a little sad, but maybe a little hopeful, too.

 The Doctor walked arm-in-arm with his oldest friend from Olympus. She was tall and beautiful, her long black hair falling down over her shoulders in a cascade of ringlets. Her eyes were gray, like a raging storm cloud. She was a powerful friend, but would make a dangerous enemy. Athena.

Even after all these years, she was still like a mentor to him, and he always enjoyed her company. But there was something different about tonight. He could feel her mood shift.

Athena let go of his arm and moved to stand across from him rather next to him. She wasn't smiling anymore, and there was a strange sadness to her eyes.

"Athena?" the Doctor murmured, tilting his head. "Are you all right? Something's bothering you, I can tell."

She nodded. "I fear that Kronos will strike soon. If the boy is truly the child of the prophecy, war is only two years away. Time is running out."

"Yes," he said thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, it is. However, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but with you around, I'm sure you'll all be alright." He smiled, but she didn't return it. She sighed. Whatever it was, she really was bothered.

"I spoke with Aphrodite earlier," Athena said softly, and his face fell. The goddess of love had probably told Athena everything. "She's not mad at me, is she?"

Athena shook her head. "No. She feels sorry for you. And… after what she told me, I have enough reason to sympathize with you, as well." She paused, sighing. "I told the boy about his fatal flaw, and after hearing Aphrodite's story, as well as having known you for years, I believe I've finally figured out what yours is. In a way, I suppose I've known all along."

He tilted his head, curious. Even so, there was a dull ache in his chest. He didn't want to be reminded of the conversation he'd had with Aphrodite, or the way she'd given him that look of pity during the Council meeting. "Well, consider me interested. What is it?"

She sighed, took one of his hands in hers. "Something very dangerous indeed. Not only is it good in moderation, but most mortals have forgotten the meaning of it." Athena looked like every word she spoke was hurting her. "Your fatal flaw is selflessness. You think of everyone and everything before yourself. You act in behalf of others without a single thought about how it will affect you. Selflessness is a good thing to have in a world driven by selfishness. However… if you deny yourself too much, you will destroy yourself. If not physically, then perhaps mentally. Or emotionally."

Her eyes darkened. "I may not be the goddess of love, but I know when one is suffering from a broken heart. I see it in your eyes. Even now, you wish you could have been more selfish that day. Your selflessness broke your own heart a long time ago."

He chuckled softly, but the raw pain was still there. In a way, he'd already destroyed himself. He'd given up the one person that had compared to the universe. "Well, it's a good thing I have two, then."

That was when Athena did something he'd never expected. She embraced him. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I never wanted any of this for you." Despite the fact that her gesture was meant to be a kind one, it made the pain even sharper. He'd never heard that distressed tone in her voice before, and he never wanted to hear it again.

When she pulled away from him, he smiled. "I'll be okay, I promise. I'm always okay. I mean, it hurts, but I'll survive. I'm hard to kill."

She nodded. "I know." A slow, kind smile spread over her face. "I taught you well."

"That you did," he replied, nodding. "It was so long ago, but I still remember it like it was… well, like it was yesterday. I was an eight-year-old child who thought there was something wrong with him. I saw the way the others looked at me. They believed I couldn't possibly be a Time Lord. All because my mother was human." He sighed softly at the memory. "I wanted to be alone that day. I wandered off to where no one would see me, and stared at the sky for hours. And then… you appeared. I just turned my head, and there you were. Scared the daylights out of me, I'll tell you that," he said, laughing softly.

She laughed, too. "I know! You screamed. I felt bad about that later."

He waved his hand dismissively. "Ah, all's forgiven. I met one of my dearest friends that day. I think I can overlook being given a fright." He paused, sighing. "I remember what you told me. 'In your veins runs the blood of Titans and gods.' You told me I was… special. Different, but not in a bad way. Trust me, I really needed to hear that. I spent my childhood hearing from pretty much everyone— apart from my parents— that I was broken, flawed, less than. And then you came along, and… told me I was destined to do something great. I'll always be grateful that you were there to guide me. Especially after… well, you know what happened to my mother. I was just a kid. Do you remember that?"

Athena nodded. "Of course. And I really am sorry. No child deserves to… to lose their mother at such an age. It changed you, that much I know. As did your friends, your family… they all changed you, shaped who you were. Your mother taught you compassion. Your father gave you a never-ending sense of curiosity for the universe. Your granddaughter taught you to slow down and think before you acted. The friends that came and went shaped your personality in all your lives."

He nodded. "That they did. And one of them reminded me who I was in a very dark time. She wasn't frightened by my darkness, but rather, tried to reach me with her light. I think that's why… why I fell in love with her."

The goddess tightened her grip on his hand. "There are worse reasons for loving someone. She was good for you, that I know. Even though I never met her. But, looking back, I know I saw you both before you lost her and afterward. It was easy to see how much it hurt you."

He nodded. "Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I had been a little more selfish. Maybe she'd still be gone. But I'd have fewer regrets. I wish I did."

"You miss her that much?"

"I loved her," he said simply. "And I never even told her."

Athena smiled sadly. "What was her name?"

"Rose," he murmured. "Her name was Rose. Rose Tyler."

Her expression flickered for a moment. Shock? Pain? He couldn't tell. Then it settled back to a neutral one. "That's a beautiful name."

"That it is," he replied. Then he cleared his throat. "I should probably get going soon. Before I have to explain to Ares— ah, never mind. But I should head back to the TARDIS soon."

Athena nodded in understanding. "Of course." Then she glanced to her left, where a large crowd was heading down the street, dancing. She raised an eyebrow. "Before you go… would you like to dance?"

His gaze flickered over to the crowd. He should have guessed what she was thinking. "I don't really… dance, anymore," he said softly. She nodded, but he didn't miss the disappointment that flickered across her face.

So, he grinned. "However, I believe I could make an exception for an old friend."

She chuckled. "I'm glad to hear it."

He held out his arm, and she took it, walking with him to the street. As they began their dance, the music changed. The Doctor didn't know what Athena heard, but to him, it sounded fast-paced and light. Like a new beginning.

Maybe things will get better, he thought to himself. I have to believe that they will.

Chapter Text

Before Percy left Olympus, he decided to make a few calls. It wasn't easy, but he finally found a quiet fountain in a corner garden and sent an Iris-message to his brother, Tyson, under the sea. He told him about their adventures, and Bessie— he wanted to hear every detail about the cute baby cow serpent—and assured him that Annabeth was safe. Finally, he got around to explaining how the shield he'd made Percy last summer had been damaged in the manticore attack.

"Yay!" Tyson said. "That means it was good! It saved your life!"

"It sure did, big guy," Percy said. "But now it's ruined."

"Not ruined!" Tyson promised. "I will visit and fix it next summer."

The idea improved Percy's mood instantly. He hadn't realized how much he missed having Tyson around.

"Seriously?" he asked. "They'll let you take time off?"

"Yes! I have made two thousand seven hundred and forty-one magic swords," Tyson said proudly, showing his brother the newest blade. "The boss says 'good work'! He will let me take the whole summer off. I will visit camp!"

The two of them talked for a while about war preparations and their father's fight with the old sea gods, and all the cool things they could do together next summer, but then Tyson's boss started yelling at him and he had to get back to work.

Percy dug out his last golden drachma and made one more Iris-message.

"Sally Jackson," he said. "Upper East Side, Manhattan."

The mist shimmered, and then there was his mother at their kitchen table, laughing and holding hands with her friend Mr. Blowfish.

Percy felt so embarrassed, he was about to wave his hand through the mist and cut the connection, but before he could, his mother saw him.

Her eyes got wide. She let go of Mr. Blowfish's hand quickly. "Oh, Paul! You know what? I left my writing journal in the living room. Would you mind getting it for me?"

"Sure, Sally. No problem."

He left the room, and instantly Sally leaned toward the Iris-message. "Percy! Are you all right?"

"I'm, uh, fine. How's that writing seminar going?"

She pursed her lips. "It's fine. But that's not important. Tell me what's happened!"

Percy filled her in as quickly as he could. She sighed with relief when she heard that Annabeth was safe.

"I knew you could do it!" she said. "I'm so proud."

"Yeah, well, I'd better let you get back to your homework."

"Percy, I… Paul and I—"

"Mom, are you happy?"

The question seemed to take her by surprise. She thought for a moment. "Yes. I really am, Percy. Being around him makes me happy."

"Then it's cool. Seriously. Don't worry about me." The funny thing was, Percy knew he meant it. Considering the quest he'd just gone on, maybe he should have been worried for his mother— he'd seen just how awful people could be to each other, like Hercules was to Zoe Nightshade, like Luke was to Thalia. He'd met Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, in person, and her powers had scared him worse than Ares. He still wondered just who or what had broken the Doctor's heart — or hearts, as, according to Annabeth, Time Lords had two of them. But seeing his mother laughing and smiling, after all the years she'd suffered with Percy's nasty ex-stepfather, Gabe Ugliano, he couldn't help feeling happy for her.

"You promise not to call him Mr. Blowfish?" she asked.

Percy shrugged. "Well, maybe not to his face, anyway."

"Sally?" Mr. Blofis called from the living room. "You need the green binder or the red one?"

"I'd better go," she told her son. "See you for Christmas?"

"Are you putting blue candy in my stocking?"

She smiled. "If you're not too old for that."

"I'm never too old for candy."

"I'll see you then."

She waved her hand across the mist. Her image disappeared, and Percy thought to himself that Thalia had been right, so many days ago at Westover Hall: his mom really was pretty cool.

Compared to Mount Olympus, New York was quiet. Friday before Christmas, but it was early in the morning, and hardly anyone was on Fifth Avenue. The Doctor had volunteered to take them back to Half-Blood Hill via the TARDIS, which Percy, Annabeth, and Grover had gladly agreed to— despite the turbulent flight, the machine itself was fascinating.

As they trudged back up Half-Blood Hill to the pine tree where the Golden Fleece glittered, Percy half expected to see Thalia there, waiting for them. But she wasn't. She was long gone with Artemis and the rest of the Hunters, off on their next adventure.

Chiron greeted them at the Big House with hot chocolate and toasted cheese sandwiches. Grover went off with his satyr friends to spread the word about their strange encounter with the magic of Pan. Within an hour, the satyrs were all running around agitated, asking where the nearest espresso bar was.

The Doctor, Annabeth and Percy sat with Chiron and some of the other senior campers— Beckendorf, Silena Beauregard, and the Stoll brothers. Percy realized Annabeth must have been very tired, because she leaned her head on the Doctor's shoulder and closed her eyes. Percy wasn't sure whether she was awake or asleep. The Doctor hadn't tried to move her, only pushed back a strand of her hair from her face. The look in his eyes told Percy that the Time Lord's mind was elsewhere.

Even Clarisse from the Ares cabin was back, returned from her secretive scouting mission. Percy knew she must've had a difficult quest, because she didn't even try to pulverize him. She had a new scar on her chin, and her dirty blond hair had been cut short and ragged, like someone had attacked it with a pair of safety scissors.

"I got news," she mumbled uneasily. "Bad news."

"I'll fill you in later," Chiron said with forced cheerfulness. "The important thing is you have prevailed. And you saved Annabeth!"

Annabeth's eyes fluttered open at that— she hadn't been asleep after all— and she smiled at Percy gratefully, which made him look away.

For some strange reason, he found himself thinking about Hoover Dam, and the odd mortal girl he and the Doctor had run into there, Rachel Elizabeth Dare. He didn't know why, but her annoying comments kept coming back. Do you always kill people when they blow their nose? He was only alive because so many people had helped him, even a random mortal girl like that. He'd never even explained to her who he was. Although the Doctor hadn't either.

"Luke is alive," Percy said. "Annabeth was right."

Annabeth sat up. "How do you know?"

He tried not to feel annoyed by her interest. He told her what his father had said about the Princess Andromeda.

"Well." Annabeth shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "If the final battle does come when Percy is sixteen, at least we have two more years to figure something out."

Percy had a feeling that when she said, "figure something out," she meant "get Luke to change his ways," which annoyed him even more.

Chiron's expression was gloomy. Sitting by the fire in his wheelchair, he looked really old. Of course, he was very old, but usually he didn't look like it.

"Two years may seem like a long time," he said. "But it is the blink of an eye. I still hope you are not the child of the prophecy, Percy. But if you are, then the second Titan war is almost upon us. Kronos's first strike will be here."

"How do you know?" Percy asked. "Why would he care about camp?"

"Because the gods use heroes as their tools," Chiron said simply. "Destroy the tools, and the gods will be crippled. Luke's forces will come here. Mortal, demigod, monstrous… We must be prepared. Clarisse's news may give us a clue as to how they will attack, but—"

There was a knock on the door, and Nico di Angelo came huffing into the parlor, his cheeks bright red from the cold.

He was smiling, but he looked around anxiously. "Hey! Where's… where's my sister?"

Dead silence fell. Percy stared at Chiron blankly. He couldn't believe that no one had told Nico yet. And then he realized why. They'd been waiting for them to reappear, to tell Nico in person.

That was the last thing Percy wanted to do. But he owed it to Bianca.

The Doctor seemed to be thinking the same thing. He got up from his chair at the same time Percy did. He bent down to Nico's level, smiled at him. "Hey, Nico, what do you say you, Percy, and I all take a walk? There's something we have to tell you."

Nico took the news of his sister's death in silence, which only made the Doctor feel worse. He kept talking, tried to explain how it had happened, how Bianca had sacrificed herself to save the rest of them. But it felt like he was only making things worse.

"Nico, I am so, so sorry. She, ah… she wanted you to have this." Reaching into his pocket, the Doctor brought out the god statuette Bianca had taken from the junkyard. Nico held it in his palm and stared at it. A tear rolled down his cheek.

The three of them were standing at the dining pavilion, just where they'd last spoken before going on the quest. The wind was bitter cold, even with the camp's protective barrier. Snow fell lightly. Outside the border, there was most likely a blizzard happening.

After a long silence, Nico spoke up. "You promised you would protect her."

Being stabbed with a rusted dagger would've hurt less than hearing the pain in Nico's voice. And of reminding the Doctor of the promise he'd made.

"Nico," the Doctor murmured. "I tried. Believe me, I tried. But Bianca gave herself up to save the rest of us. I told her not to. But she—"

"You promised!" he repeated angrily.

He glared at the Doctor and Percy, his eyes rimmed red. He closed his small fist around the god statue.

"I shouldn't have trusted you." His voice broke. "You lied to me. My nightmares were right!"

"Wait," Percy cut in. "What nightmares?"

Nico flung the god statue to the ground. It clattered across the icy marble. "I hate you! I hate both of you!" To the Doctor, each word felt like a painful blow.

"She might be alive," he said desperately. "I don't know for sure—"

"She's dead." Nico closed his eyes. His whole body trembled with rage. "I should've known it earlier. She's in the Fields of Asphodel, standing before the judges right now, being evaluated. I can feel it."

The Doctor's hearts quickened. That didn't sound good. "Nico, what do you mean? How can you feel it?"

Before he could answer, there was a new sound behind them. A hissing, clattering noise the Doctor recognized all too well.

He and Percy turned and found themselves facing four skeleton warriors. Nico gasped. Percy moved to draw his sword, but the Doctor shook his head. He brought out his sonic screwdriver and pointed it at them.

The screwdriver was working fine, but nothing happened. That prompted Percy to draw out Riptide. As the pen morphed into a sword, Nico started yelling. The skeletons grinned fleshless grins and advanced, swords drawn.

"You're trying to kill me!" Nico screamed. "You brought these… these things?"

The Doctor shook his head. "No, of course not! I mean, yeah, they followed us, but no! Nico, run. They can't be destroyed."

"I don't trust you!"

The first skeleton charged. Percy knocked aside its blade, but the other three kept coming. He sliced one in half, but immediately it began to knit back together. Another's head was knocked off, but it just kept fighting.

"Run, Nico!" Percy yelled.

"No!" He pressed his hands to his ears.

"Stay alive, I'm getting help!" the Doctor yelled, but as he turned to run, Nico started shouting louder.

"No! Go away!"

The ground rumbled beneath them. The skeletons froze. Percy rolled out of the way just as a crack opened at the feet of the four warriors. The Doctor watched, horrified, as the ground ripped apart like a snapping mouth. Flames erupted from the fissure, and the earth swallowed the skeletons in one loud CRUNCH!

Then… silence.

In the place where the skeletons had stood, a twenty-foot-long scar wove across the marble floor of the pavilion. Otherwise, there was no sign of the warriors.

Awestruck, the Doctor looked to Nico. "How did you—"

"Go away!" he yelled. "I hate you both! I wish you were dead!"

The ground didn't swallow either of them up, but Nico ran down the steps, heading toward the woods. They both started to follow, but Percy slipped and fell to the icy steps, and the Doctor bent down to help him. When Percy got up, they noticed what he'd slipped on.

The Doctor picked up the god statue Bianca had retrieved from the junkyard for Nico. The only statue he didn't have, she'd said. A last gift from his sister.

He stared at it with dread on his face, because now he understood why the god looked familiar. He'd seen it before.

It was a statue of Hades, Lord of the Dead.

Annabeth and Grover helped them search the woods for hours, but there was no sign of Nico di Angelo.

"We have to tell Chiron," Annabeth said, out of breath.

"No," Percy said.

She, Grover, and the Doctor all stared at him.

"Um," Grover said nervously, "what do you mean… no?"

Percy was still trying to figure out why he'd said that, but the words spilled out of him. "We can't let anyone know. I don't think anyone realizes that Nico is a—"

"A son of Hades," the Doctor said suddenly.

Annabeth's eyes widened. "Percy, do you have any idea how serious this is? Even Hades broke the oath! This is horrible!"

"I don't think so," he said. "I don't think Hades broke the oath."


"He's their dad," Percy went on, "but Bianca and Nico have been out of commission for a long time, since even before World War II."

"The Lotus Casino!" Grover exclaimed, and told Annabeth about the conversations they'd had with Bianca on the quest. "She and Nico were stuck there for decades. They were born before the oath was made."

The Doctor nodded.

"But how did they get out?" Annabeth protested.

"I don't know," Percy admitted. "Bianca said a lawyer came and got them and drove them to Westover Hall. I don't know who that could've been, or why. Maybe it's part of this Great Stirring thing. I don't think Nico understands what he is. But we can't go telling anyone. Not even Chiron. If the Olympians find out—"

"It might start them fighting among each other again," Annabeth finished for him. "That's the last thing we need."

Grover looked worried. "But you can't hide things from the gods. Not forever."

"I don't need forever," Percy said. "Just two years. Until I'm sixteen."

Annabeth paled. "But, Percy, this means the prophecy might not be about you. It might be about Nico. We have to—"

"No," Percy said firmly. "I choose the prophecy. It will be about me."

"Why are you saying that?" she cried. "You want to be responsible for the whole world?"

It was the last thing he wanted, but he didn't say that. Percy knew he had to step up and claim it.

"I can't let Nico be in any more danger," he said. "I owe that much to his sister. I… let them both down. I'm not going to let that poor kid suffer any more."

"The poor kid who hates you and wants to see you and the Doctor dead," Grover reminded him.

"Maybe we can find him," the Doctor cut in. "We can convince him it's okay, hide him someplace safe."

Annabeth shivered. "If Luke gets hold of him—"

"Luke won't," Percy said. "I'll make sure he's got other things to worry about. Namely, me."

Percy wasn't sure if Chiron believed the story he, Annabeth, and the Doctor told him. Percy knew he probably could tell they were holding something back about Nico's disappearance, but in the end, he accepted it. Unfortunately, Nico wasn't the first half-blood to disappear.

"So young," Chiron sighed, his hands on the rail of the front porch. "Alas, I hope he was eaten by monsters. Much better than being recruited into the Titans' army."

That idea made Percy uneasy. He almost changed his mind about telling Chiron, but kept his mouth shut.

"You really think the first attack will be here?" he asked.

Chiron stared at the snow falling on the hills. Percy could see smoke from the dragon guardian at the pine tree, the glitter of the distant Fleece.

"It will not be until summer, at least," Chiron said. This winter will be hard… the hardest for many centuries. It's best that you go home to the city, Percy; try to keep your mind on school. And rest. You will need rest."

The Doctor nodded in agreement. "I'll get back to the TARDIS, carry on as I have been. But…" he reached into his pocket, pulling out a couple scraps of paper. He handed one to Percy and another to Annabeth. A number was scribbled messily on it, but it was still legible. "I know the rule about your kind and phones, but this number is the best way to reach me. About the only way, most of the time. If there's anything you need my help with, call me."

The two of them nodded. "Okay," Annabeth said. Then she smiled. "Will you come back to visit? Even if we aren't in danger?"

"If you want me to, yeah," he replied. "Just dial that number there."

Percy put the scrap of paper in his jacket pocket. "Sure. Uh… thanks. We owe you one."

He grinned. "No, you don't. This is what I do."

Percy decided arguing further on his point would be useless and looked over at Annabeth. "What about you?"

Her cheeks flushed. "I'm going to try San Francisco after all. Maybe I can keep an eye on Mount Tam, make sure the Titans don't try anything else."

"You'll send an Iris-message if anything goes wrong?"

She nodded. "But I think Chiron's right. It won't be until the summer. Luke will need time to regain his strength."

Percy didn't like the idea of waiting. Then again, he reminded himself he'd be turning fifteen next August. So close to sixteen that he didn't want to think about it.

"All right," he said, smirking. "Just take care of yourself. And no crazy stunts in the Sopwith Camel."

She smiled tentatively. "Deal. And, Percy—"

Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by Grover, who stumbled out of the Big House, tripping over tin cans. His face was haggard and pale, like he'd seen a specter.

"He spoke!" Grover cried.

"Calm down, my young satyr," Chiron said, frowning. "What is the matter?"

"I… I was playing music in the parlor," he stammered, "and drinking coffee. Lots and lots of coffee! And he spoke in my mind!"

"Who?" Annabeth demanded.

"Pan!" Grover wailed. "The Lord of the Wild himself. I heard him! I have to… I have to find a suitcase."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Percy cut in, holding up his hands. "What did he say?"

Grover stared at him, looking both excited and terrified. "Just three words. He said, 'I await you...'"

Chapter Text

Run, the girl thought to herself. I have to keep running. If I stop, they'll catch me. The girl breathed heavily from exertion as she tore through the field. Sweat trickled down her forehead, and her blonde hair kept getting in her eyes. The moon gave her just enough light to see where she was going. She had to make it to the street. Back to her flat. Where she could seal the door and lock it behind her.

Where the wolves could not get in.

She risked a glance back over her shoulder. The she-wolf at the head of her pack was gaining, the five others still at her side. Outrunning them would be futile, unless she could get back to her home in time. She had to try.

That horrible voice spoke again, in her head. The girl knew it was the she-wolf. It was impossible for wolves to speak, let alone without making a sound, but somehow, she knew it was the wolf that was speaking to her.

Stop running, child! Don't be afraid.

"Go away!" she screamed at them. "Get out of my head!"

Stop, please! I don't want to hurt you. I just want to talk!

"I don't trust you! Why should I believe you? You're just a wolf!"

Because you are my sister, the she-wolf replied. Please. I've come to speak to you about your mother. Your real mother.

That was enough to get her to slow down. The girl had always known that her parents adopted her, but they knew nothing about her birth family. She turned around.

The pack of wolves had slowed down. The leader was coming towards her at a walk now, her head tilted downwards. Her tail wagged slightly — a sign of peace. Come closer, sister, she said in a friendly tone. Sit, and let us talk.

The girl stepped slowly towards the wolves, crouched down on the ground in front of the leader. "Who… are you, and why can you talk?"

She made a sound that may have been a chuckle. I am Lupa, mother of all wolves. You can only understand me because of what you are.

"What I am?" she echoed, confused. "I'm just a normal girl."

Not so. Your life has never been normal. True, you've been healthy and happy— gone to school with your friends, spent time with the woman you consider your mother, and dreamed of growing up. But you have been surrounded by abnormal things. You've noticed things no one else seems to see. A woman with snakes on her head rather than hair. A man with ram's horns. You've heard dogs speak, felt rather than seen time passing around you. You, my dear, are most decidedly abnormal.

The girl stared in shock. How could the wolf know about those things? She remembered seeing the woman with covered eyes and hair that hissed and writhed. The friendly homeless man that had horns poking out from beneath his cap. Whenever she passed by a dog in the park, she imagined she could understand them— she heard excited voices, a chorus of "Throw the ball!" and "Come play with me!" But she'd always thought her ears were playing tricks on her. And no matter what, if she really concentrated and thought hard, she always seemed to know exactly what time it was.

"How… how do you know all this about me?"

My children are everywhere, sister, she explained. They watch you, guard you, protect you. Even when you are not aware.

Her eyes widened. "Why? What's so special about me?"

Lupa drew closer, sniffed the girl's hand. Your mother was our patron. She guarded and defended us. We may be sacred to the Lord of Warfare, but your mother loved us. She was also my mother. Therefore, her daughter is my sister.

"How can you be my sister?" she asked, incredulous. "I'm a human. And you're not."

Some things are quite difficult to explain, child, Lupa went on. But know this: it is our duty to defend the only legacy our patron left. That legacy was you. Her only half-blood daughter.

"Half-blood?" she repeated, confused. "What's a half-blood?"

A half-blood is what you are, sister. Half human. Your father accounts for that half of you. Your mother was something very special indeed.

"Do you know who my father was?" the girl asked. "I'm adopted. And even my adoptive dad died. I never knew him."

Of course I know who your father was, Lupa replied. He was the husband of your adoptive mother. That man was your real father. Only his wife has no blood tying herself to you. She took you in because she wanted a child of her own.

"He was… my real dad?" she said in a small voice. Lupa nodded— an unusual gesture for a wolf. Yes. It is no coincidence that you were found on their doorstep. Your mother had a child with him because she knew her time was running out. She wanted her spirit to live on in a daughter.

The girl drew in a shocked breath. "She was… dying?"

Fading, Lupa corrected her. She was fading. People no longer believed in what she represented.

"What was my mother, then?" the girl asked. "You said I'm half human. What's the other half? What kind of a person fades because of people not believing something?"

The kind of person your mother was. A half-blood is, simply put, half human… and half god. Or goddess, in your case.

The girl wanted to turn and run right then. But curiosity and a thousand questions kept her planted in that spot. "My mother was a goddess?"

Yes, came Lupa's reply. A goddess brought to life in the times of ancient Rome.

"What… what was her name? What was she the goddess of?"

I am afraid I cannot yet tell you that, sister. You will learn of her one day, but only when you are ready. You must be prepared before taking the great burden that knowledge will place on you. For now, know you are a daughter of ancient Rome, and that is all that matters.

The girl's breathing grew ragged. "What do I need to be ready for? How do I prepare myself? What do I need to do?"

Lupa nudged the girl's hand with her head. Come with us, she answered. Take your place among your brothers and sisters. A pause. Tell me, girl, how old are you?

"T-Thirteen," she stammered. "I just turned thirteen."

Good. That is good. I implore you to come with us, sister. Many of your kind have journeyed to our home when they are about your age. Normally, I would judge them to see whether they were worthy of becoming a hero. If they were, I would then direct them to a hidden place— an encampment, where half-bloods and their legacies learn to survive. They learn to hunt, fight, use their wit. However, in your case, things will be different. You are our sister, after all.

"Different how?" she questioned.

Should you come with us, you will train for three years. On your sixteenth birthday, I will send you to the encampment as a warrior, fully-trained in the ways of our kind. With the combined efforts of my pack and the Roman legion, you will become a force of nature, a fearsome opponent. You will be unstoppable.

"Why tell me about this now?" the girl pressed further. "I'd have to leave everything behind. Why didn't you just take me when I was little?"

Because you needed a mortal parent. And… I will not lie, sister, your kind will need a fierce she-wolf on their side in the near future. Something is coming. Something terrible. Half-bloods will need someone like you to defend them. Not only is it our duty to protect our sister, but you will be needed to defeat a great evil.

"Well, why can't you just help them, then? Instead of bringing me into this?"

You have powers that we do not, even if you haven't learned to control them. Only the power given to you by your mother can stop the evil that will soon awaken.

"I can't leave," she argued. "I can't just leave my mum and my friends behind. They'd miss me."

That is where you are wrong. There is Mist that surrounds us, even now. It is powerful, and can be easily manipulated. It can create an illusion so close to real that it would be as if you never left.

A tear fell from the girl's eye. "What if I don't want to leave?"

Then you will never know of your mother, Lupa replied, without hesitation. You will be unprepared for any sort of attack thrown your way. You are nearing the age when monsters of every kind will be able to detect your scent. And you will not be able to seal away the evil when it wakes.

"What evil?" she all but yelled. "At least tell me what that is! Give me a name!"

Despite never having made a sound, the girl knew Lupa's next words were meant to be grave.

Gaea, she replied. Mother Earth.

"Mother Earth is evil? What did she do?"

She desires to consume all in her domain. Particularly the gods and their offspring. She never had any love for them. Do not think that you would be spared from her wrath, should you decide to stay. She has slept for eons, but now she stirs. Even in a dream state, she is a formidable enemy. Should she fully wake… that would mean the end of everything.

The girl sighed. "Seems like I haven't got much of a choice, have I?"

I am afraid you don't.

"At least let me say goodbye. I'll come with you, but you have to let me say goodbye to my mum. And don't look at me like that, Lupa. She's my mother, biological or not."

Family does not begin or end in blood. You may say goodbye to your adoptive mother. On one condition: I accompany you.

"But she'll see you! How do I explain having a wolf with me?"

As I said, the Mist is powerful. Besides, I would not be in this form, anyway.

"What do you mean, 'this form'?"

We are a special breed of wolf, created by your mother. We can change our shape to whatever form we desire. It is especially useful when needing to be in the company of humans. Perhaps one day, you too will have this ability. I do not know. Watch, sister, and learn.

Then, before the girl's eyes, Lupa's form shifted and changed. Her snout shrank back into her head, her body grew long and tall, and her paws stretched out, the toes becoming fingers. Fur changed to skin and clothes.

Lupa bent back down to meet the girl's eye. Where there had once been a she-wolf, there was now a young woman. Her limbs and frame were very thin, and silvery-blonde hair tumbled to her waist in thick waves. She was dressed in jeans, a loose dark purple top, and black sneakers. For such a young-looking girl, her now-violet eyes were ancient. She smiled, and for the first time, her mouth moved as she spoke. "Hello."

"H-Hi," the girl stammered.

Lupa extended her hand for the girl to take. "Come. We should go." The girl nodded silently. Then, Lupa frowned. "Only… one thing. You still haven't told me your name."

"How do I know you don't know it already?"

She chuckled. "Clever of you to say, my girl. I do know the name given to you by your adoptive mother. It is my belief your mother wanted you to have this name, hence the locket you were left with as a child." Lupa's eyes flitted to the chain around her neck.

The girl looked down at the gold pendant. She'd never taken it off, ever. Somehow, she'd never outgrown it.

Then Lupa cleared her throat. "However, this is also an opportunity for you to choose a new name for yourself. Keep the one given to you, or remake yourself entirely. That is your choice."

The girl shook her head. "I like my name. An' if my real mum wanted me to have it, then I suppose I'll keep it." She paused, took a deep breath.

"My name is Rose. Rose Marion Tyler."