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Sweet Dreams

Chapter Text

The blond girl I'd met at the Big House was reading a book in front of the last cabin on the left, number eleven. A short girl with white hair and startling blue eyes was standing next to her.

When we reached them, the blonde one looked me over critically, like she was still thinking about how much I drooled.

I tried to see what she was reading, but I couldn't make out the title. I thought my dyslexia was acting up. Then I realized the title wasn't even English. The letters looked Greek to me. I mean, literally Greek. There were pictures of temples and statues and different kinds of columns, like those in an architecture book.

"Annabeth, Andrea," Chiron said, "I have masters' archery class at noon. Would you take Percy from here?"

"Yes, sir."

"Cabin eleven," Chiron told me, gesturing toward the doorway. "Make yourself at home."

Out of all the cabins, eleven looked the most like a regular old summer camp cabin, with the emphasis on old. The threshold was worn down, the brown paint peeling. Over the doorway was one of those doctor's symbols, a winged pole with two snakes wrapped around it. What did they call it...? A caduceus.

Inside, it was packed with people, both boys and girls, way more than the number of bunk beds. Sleeping bags were spread all over on the floor. It looked like a gym where the Red Cross had set up an evacuation center.

Chiron didn't go in. The door was too low for him. But when the campers saw him they all stood and bowed respectfully.

"Well, then," Chiron said. "Good luck, Percy. I'll see you at dinner."

He galloped away toward the archery range.

I stood in the doorway, looking at the kids. They weren't bowing anymore. They were staring at me, sizing me up. I knew this routine. I'd gone through it at enough schools.

"Well?" Annabeth prompted. "Go on."

So naturally I tripped coming in the door and made a total fool of myself. There were some snickers from the campers, but none of them said anything.

Annabeth announced, "Percy Jackson, meet cabin eleven."

"Regular or undetermined?" somebody asked.

I didn't know what to say, but Annabeth said, "Undetermined."

Everybody groaned.

A guy who was a little older than the rest came forward. "Now, now, campers. That's what we're here for. Welcome, Percy. You can have that spot on the floor, right over there."

The guy was about nineteen, and he looked pretty cool. He was tall and muscular, with short-cropped sandy hair and a friendly smile. He wore an orange tank top, cutoffs, sandals, and a leather necklace with five different-colored clay beads. The only thing unsettling about his appearance was a thick white scar that ran from just beneath his right eye to his jaw, like an old knife slash.

"This is Luke," Annabeth said, and her voice sounded different somehow. I glanced over and could've sworn she was blushing. She saw me looking, and her expression hardened again. "He's your counselor for now."

"For now?" I asked.

"You're undetermined," Luke explained patiently. "They don't know what cabin to put you in, so you're here. Cabin eleven takes all newcomers, all visitors. Naturally, we would. Hermes, our patron, is the god of travelers."

I looked at the tiny section of floor they'd given me. I had nothing to put there to mark it as my own, no luggage, no clothes, no sleeping bag. Just the Minotaur's horn. I thought about setting that down, but then I remembered that Hermes was also the god of thieves.

I looked around at the campers' faces, some sullen and suspicious, some grinning stupidly, some eyeing me as if they were waiting for a chance to pick my pockets.

"How long will I be here?" I asked.

"Good question," Luke said. "Until you're determined."

"How long will that take?"

The campers all laughed.

"Come on," Andrea told me softly, her nimble fingers taking my wrist. "I'll show you the volleyball court."

"I've already seen it."

"Come on." She dragged me outside. I could hear the kids of cabin eleven laughing behind me.

When we were a few feet away, Annabeth said, "Jackson, you have to do better than that."

"What?"

She rolled her eyes and mumbled under her breath, "I can't believe I thought you were the one."

"Annie," Andrea whispered, but her chastising did nothing for my frustration.

"What's your problem?" I was getting angry now. "All I know is, I kill some bull guy-"

"Don't talk like that!" Annabeth told me. "You know how many kids at this camp wish they'd had your chance?"

"To get killed?"

"To fight the Minotaur! What do you think we train for?"

I shook my head. "Look, if the thing I fought really was the Minotaur, the same one in the stories..."

"Yes."

"Then there's only one."

"Yes."

"And he died, like, a gajillion years ago, right? Theseus killed him in the labyrinth. So..."

"Monsters don't die, Percy. They can be killed. But they don't die."

"Oh, thanks. That clears it up."

"They don't have souls, like you and me. You can dispel them for a while, maybe even for a whole lifetime if you're lucky. But they are primal forces. Chiron calls them archetypes. Eventually, they re-form."

I thought about Mrs. Dodds. "You mean if I killed one, accidentally, with a sword-"

"The Fur-... I mean, your math teacher. That's right. She's still out there. You just made her very, very mad."

"How did you know about Mrs. Dodds?"

"You talk in your sleep."

"You almost called her something. A Fury? They're Hades' torturers, right?"

Annabeth glanced nervously at the ground, as if she expected it to open up and swallow her. "You shouldn't call them by name, even here. We call them the Kindly Ones, if we have to speak of them at all."

"Look, is there anything we can say without it thundering?" I sounded whiny, even to myself, but right then I didn't care. "Why do I have to stay in cabin eleven, anyway? Why is everybody so crowded together? There are plenty of empty bunks right over there."

I pointed to the first few cabins, and Annabeth turned pale. "You don't just choose a cabin, Percy. It depends on who your parents are. Or... your parent."

She and Andrea stared at me, waiting for me to get it.

"My mom is Sally Jackson," I said. "She works at the candy store in Grand Central Station. At least, she used to."

"I'm sorry about your mom, Percy. But that's not what I mean. I'm talking about your other parent. Your dad."

"He's dead. I never knew him."

Andrea sighed through her nose. Clearly, they'd had this conversation before with other kids. "Your father's not dead, Percy."

"How can you say that? You know him?"

"No, of course not."

"Then how can you say-"

"Because I know you. You wouldn't be here if you weren't one of us."

"You don't know anything about me."

"No?" Annabeth raised an eyebrow. "I bet you moved around from school to school. I bet you were kicked out of a lot of them."

"How-"

"Diagnosed with dyslexia. Probably ADHD, too."

I tried to swallow my embarrassment. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Taken together, it's almost a sure sign. The letters float off the page when you read, right? That's because your mind is hardwired for ancient Greek. And the ADHD - you're impulsive, can't sit still in the classroom. That's your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they'd keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that's because you see too much, Percy, not too little. Your senses are better than a regular mortal's. Of course the teachers want you medicated. Most of them are monsters. They don't want you seeing them for what they are."

"You sound like... you went through the same thing?"

"Most of the kids here did. If you weren't like us, you couldn't have survived the Minotaur, much less the ambrosia and nectar."

"Ambrosia and nectar."

"The food and drink we were giving you to make you better. That stuff would've killed a normal kid. It would've turned your blood to fire and your bones to sand and you'd be dead. Face it. You're a half-blood."

A half-blood.

I was reeling with so many questions I didn't know where to start.

Then a husky voice yelled, "Well! A newbie!"

I looked over. The big girl from the ugly red cabin was sauntering toward us. She had three other girls behind her, all big and ugly and mean looking like her, all wearing camo jackets.

"Clarisse," Annabeth sighed. "Why don't you go polish your spear or something?"

"Sure, Miss Princess," the big girl said. "So I can run you through with it Friday night."

''Erre es korakas!" Annabeth said, which I somehow understood was Greek for 'Go to the crows!' though I had a feeling it was a worse curse than it sounded. "You don't stand a chance."

"We'll pulverize you," Clarisse said, but her eye twitched. Perhaps she wasn't sure she could follow through on the threat. She turned toward me. "Who's this little runt?"

"Percy Jackson," Annabeth said, "meet Clarisse, Daughter of Ares."

I blinked. "Like... the war god?"

Clarisse sneered. "You got a problem with that?"

"No," I said, recovering my wits. "It explains the bad smell."

Clarisse growled. "We got an initiation ceremony for newbies, Prissy."

"Percy."

"Whatever. Come on, I'll show you."

"Clarisse-" Andrea tried to say.

"Stay out of it, sleepyhead. Same goes for wise girl."

They looked pained, but they did stay out of it, and I didn't really want their help. I was the new kid. I had to earn my own rep.

I handed Annabeth my minotaur horn and got ready to fight, but before I knew it, Clarisse had me by the neck and was dragging me toward a cinder-block building that I knew immediately was the bathroom.

I was kicking and punching. I'd been in plenty of fights before, but this big girl Clarisse had hands like iron. She dragged me into the girls' bathroom. There was a line of toilets on one side and a line of shower stalls down the other. It smelled just like any public bathroom, and I was thinking - as much as I could think with Clarisse ripping my hair out - that if this place belonged to the gods, they should've been able to afford classier johns.

Clarisse's friends were all laughing, and I was trying to find the strength I'd used to fight the Minotaur, but it just wasn't there.

"Like he's 'Big Three' material," Clarisse said as she pushed me toward one of the toilets. "Yeah, right. Minotaur probably fell over laughing, he was so stupid looking."

Her friends snickered.

Annabeth stood in the corner, watching through her fingers. Andrea was fidgeting with a ring, her lips pursed.

Clarisse bent me over on my knees and started pushing my head toward the toilet bowl. It reeked like rusted pipes and, well, like what goes into toilets. I strained to keep my head up. I was looking at the scummy water, thinking, I will not go into that. I won't.

Then something happened. I felt a tug in the pit of my stomach. I heard the plumbing rumble, the pipes shudder. Clarisse's grip on my hair loosened. Water shot out of the toilet, making an arc straight over my head, and the next thing I knew, I was sprawled on the bathroom tiles with Clarisse screaming behind me.

I turned just as water blasted out of the toilet again, hitting Clarisse straight in the face so hard it pushed her down onto her butt. The water stayed on her like the spray from a fire hose, pushing her backward into a shower stall.

She struggled, gasping, and her friends started coming toward her. But then the other toilets exploded, too, and six more streams of toilet water blasted them back. The showers acted up, too, and together all the fixtures sprayed the camouflage girls right out of the bathroom, spinning them around like pieces of garbage being washed away.

As soon as they were out the door, I felt the tug in my gut lessen, and the water shut off as quickly as it had started.

The entire bathroom was flooded. Annabeth and Andrea hadn't been spared. They was dripping wet, but hadn't been pushed out the door. They was standing in exactly the same place, staring at me in shock.

I looked down and realized I was sitting in the only dry spot in the whole room. There was a circle of dry floor around me. I didn't have one drop of water on my clothes. Nothing.

I stood up, my legs shaky.

Annabeth said, "How did you..."

"I don't know."

We walked to the door. Outside, Clarisse and her friends were sprawled in the mud, and a bunch of other campers had gathered around to gawk. Clarisse's hair was flattened across her face. Her camouflage jacket was sopping and she smelled like sewage. She gave me a look of absolute hatred. "You are dead, new boy. You are totally dead."

I probably should have let it go, but I said, "You want to gargle with toilet water again, Clarisse? Close your mouth."

Her friends had to hold her back. They dragged her toward cabin five, while the other campers made way to avoid her flailing feet.

Annabeth stared at me. I couldn't tell whether she was just grossed out or angry at me for dousing her.

"What?" I demanded. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking," she said, "that I want you on my team for capture the flag."

* * * * *

Word of the bathroom incident spread immediately. Wherever I went, campers pointed at me and murmured something about toilet water. Or maybe they were just staring at Annabeth and Andrea, who were still pretty much dripping wet - I could tell Andrea despised the attention.

They showed me a few more places: the metal shop (where kids were forging their own swords), the arts-and-crafts room (where satyrs were sandblasting a giant marble statue of a goat-man), and the climbing wall, which actually consisted of two facing walls that shook violently, dropped boulders, sprayed lava, and clashed together if you didn't get to the top fast enough.

Finally we returned to the canoeing lake, where the trail led back to the cabins.

"I've got training to do," Annabeth said flatly. "Dinner's at seven-thirty. Just follow your cabin to the mess hall."

"Annabeth, I'm sorry about the toilets."

"Whatever."

"It wasn't my fault."

She looked at me skeptically, and I realized it was my fault. I'd made water shoot out of the bathroom fixtures. I didn't understand how. But the toilets had responded to me. I had become one with the plumbing.

"You need to talk to the Oracle," Annabeth said.

"Who?"

"Not who. What. The Oracle. I'll ask Chiron."

I stared into the lake, wishing somebody would give me a straight answer for once.

I wasn't expecting anybody to be looking back at me from the bottom, so my heart skipped a beat when I noticed two teenage girls sitting cross-legged at the base of the pier, about twenty feet below. They wore blue jeans and shimmering green T-shirts, and their brown hair floated loose around their shoulders as minnows darted in and out. They smiled and waved as if I were a long-lost friend.

I didn't know what else to do. I waved back.

"Don't encourage them," Annabeth warned. "Naiads are terrible flirts."

"Naiads," I repeated, feeling completely overwhelmed. "That's it. I want to go home now."

Annabeth frowned. "Don't you get it, Percy? You are home. This is the only safe place on earth for kids like us."

"You mean, mentally disturbed kids?"

"I mean not human. Not totally human, anyway. Half-human."

"Half-human and half-what?"

"I think you know."

I didn't want to admit it, but I was afraid I did. I felt a tingling in my limbs, a sensation I sometimes felt when my mom talked about my dad.

"God," I said. "Half-god."

Annabeth nodded. "Your father isn't dead, Percy. He's one of the Olympians."

"That's... crazy."

"Is it? What's the most common thing gods did in the old stories? They ran around falling in love with humans and having kids with them. Do you think they've changed their habits in the last few millennia?"

"But those are just-" I almost said myths again. Then I remembered Chiron's warning that in two thousand years, I might be considered a myth. "But if all the kids here are half-gods-"

"Demigods," Annabeth said. "That's the official term. Or half-bloods."

"Then who's your dad?"

Her hands tightened around the pier railing. I got the feeling I'd just trespassed on a sensitive subject.

"My dad is a professor at West Point," she said. "I haven't seen him since I was very small. He teaches American history."

"He's human."

"What? You assume it has to be a male god who finds a human female attractive? How sexist is that?"

"Who's your mom, then?"

"Cabin six."

"Meaning?"

Annabeth straightened. "Athena. Goddess of wisdom and battle."

Okay, I thought. Why not?

"And yours?" Andrea fidgeted with her ring again, probably a nervous habit.

"Mom used to be a shrink in Europe. Dad's Morpheus. He's the god of dreams, not to be confused with Hypnos, the god of sleep."

"And my dad?"

"Undetermined," Annabeth said, "like I told you before. Nobody knows."

"Except my mother. She knew."

"Maybe not, Percy. Gods don't always reveal their identities."

"My dad would have. He loved her."

Annabeth gave me a cautious look. She didn't want to burst my bubble. "Maybe you're right. Maybe he'll send a sign. That's the only way to know for sure: your father has to send you a sign claiming you as his son. Sometimes it happens.

"You mean sometimes it doesn't?"

Annabeth ran her palm along the rail. "The gods are busy. They have a lot of kids and they don't always... Well, sometimes they don't care about us, Percy. They ignore us."

I thought about some of the kids I'd seen in the Hermes cabin, teenagers who looked sullen and depressed, as if they were waiting for a call that would never come. I'd known kids like that at Yancy Academy, shuffled off to boarding school by rich parents who didn't have the time to deal with them. But gods should behave better.

"So I'm stuck here," I said. "That's it? For the rest of my life?"

"It depends," Annabeth said. "Some campers only stay the summer. If you're a child of Aphrodite or Demeter, you're probably not a real powerful force. The monsters might ignore you, so you can get by with a few months of summer training and live in the mortal world the rest of the year. But for some of us, it's too dangerous to leave. We're year-rounders. In the mortal world, we attract monsters. They sense us. They come to challenge us. Most of the time, they'll ignore us until we're old enough to cause trouble - about ten or eleven years old, but after that, most demigods either make their way here, or they get killed off. A few manage to survive in the outside world and become famous. Believe me, if I told you the names, you'd know them. Some don't even realize they're demigods. But very, very few are like that."

"So monsters can't get in here?"

Annabeth shook her head. "Not unless they're intentionally stocked in the woods or specially summoned by somebody on the inside."

"Why would anybody want to summon a monster?"

"Practice fights. Practical jokes."

"Practical jokes?"

"The point is, the borders are sealed to keep mortals and monsters out. From the outside, mortals look into the valley and see nothing unusual, just a strawberry farm."

"So... you're year-rounders?"

Annabeth nodded. From under the collar of her T-shirt she pulled a leather necklace with five clay beads of different colors. It was just like Luke's, except Annabeth's also had a big gold ring strung on it, like a college ring. Andrea did the same, but hers didn't have anything other than the beads on it.

"I've been here since I was seven," Annabeth said. "Every August, on the last day of summer session, you get a bead for surviving another year. I've been here longer than most of the counselors, and they're all in college. Andy has been here for a few months less than me."

"Why did you come so young?"

She twisted the ring on her necklace. "None of your business."

"Oh." I stood there for a minute in uncomfortable silence. "So... I could just walk out of here right now if I wanted to?"

"It would be suicide, but you could, with Mr. D's or Chiron's permission. But they wouldn't give permission until the end of the summer session unless..."

"Unless?"

"You were granted a quest. But that hardly ever happens. The last time..."

Her voice trailed off. I could tell from her tone that the last time hadn't gone well.

"Back in the sick room," I said, "when you were feeding me that stuff-"

"Ambrosia."

"Yeah. You asked me something about the summer solstice."

Annabeth's shoulders tensed. "So you do know something?"

"Well... no. Back at my old school, I overheard Grover and Chiron talking about it. Grover mentioned the summer solstice. He said something like we didn't have much time, because of the deadline. What did that mean?"

She clenched her fists. "I wish I knew. Chiron and the satyrs, they know, but they won't tell me. Something is wrong in Olympus, something pretty major. Last time I was there, everything seemed so normal."

"You've been to Olympus?"

"Some of us year-rounders - Luke, Andy, Clarisse and I and a few others - we took a field trip during winter solstice. That's when the gods have their big annual council."

"But... how did you get there?"

"The Long Island Railroad, of course. You get off at Penn Station. Empire State Building, special elevator to the six hundredth floor." She looked at me like she was sure I must know this already. "You are a New Yorker, right?"

"Oh, sure." As far as I knew, there were only a hundred and two floors in the Empire State Building, but I decided not to point that out.

"Right after we visited," Annabeth continued, "the weather got weird, as if the gods had started fighting. A couple of times since, I've overheard satyrs talking. The best I can figure out is that something important was stolen. And if it isn't returned by summer solstice, there's going to be trouble. When you came, I was hoping... I mean - Athena can get along with just about anybody, except for Ares. And of course she's got the rivalry with Poseidon. But, I mean, aside from that, I thought we could work together. I thought you might know something."

I shook my head. I wished I could help her, but I felt too hungry and tired and mentally overloaded to ask any more questions.

"I've got to get a quest," Annabeth muttered to herself. "I'm not too young. If they would just tell me the problem..."

I could smell barbecue smoke coming from somewhere nearby. Annabeth must've heard my stomach growl. She told us to go on, she'd catch us later. I left her on the pier, tracing her finger across the rail as if drawing a battle plan.

Back at cabin eleven, everybody was talking and horsing around, waiting for dinner. For the first time, I noticed that a lot of the campers had similar features: sharp noses, upturned eyebrows, mischievous smiles. They were the kind of kids that teachers would peg as troublemakers. Thankfully, nobody paid much attention to me as I walked over to my spot on the floor and plopped down with my minotaur horn...

The counselor, Luke, came over. He had the Hermes family resemblance, too. It was marred by that scar on his right cheek, but his smile was intact. He winked at Andrea, who grinned.

"Found you a sleeping bag," he said. "And here, I stole you some toiletries from the camp store."

I couldn't tell if he was kidding about the stealing part.

I said, "Thanks."

"No prob." Luke sat next to me, pushed his back against the wall. "Tough first day?"

"I don't belong here," I said. "I don't even believe in gods."

"Yeah," he said. "That's how we all started. Once you start believing in them? It doesn't get any easier."

The bitterness in his voice surprised me, because Luke seemed like a pretty easygoing guy. He looked like he could handle just about anything.

"So your dad is Hermes?" I asked.

He pulled a switchblade out of his back pocket, and for a second I thought he was going to gut me, but he just scraped the mud off the sole of his sandal. "Yeah. Hermes."

"The wing-footed messenger guy."

"That's him. Messengers. Medicine. Travelers, merchants, thieves. Anybody who uses the roads. That's why you're here, enjoying cabin eleven's hospitality. Hermes isn't picky about who he sponsors."

I figured Luke didn't mean to call me a nobody. He just had a lot on his mind.

"You ever meet your dad?" I asked.

"Once."

I waited, thinking that if he wanted to tell me, he'd tell me. Apparently, he didn't. I wondered if the story had anything to do with how he got his scar.

Luke looked up and managed a smile. "Don't worry about it, Percy. The campers here, they're mostly good people. After all, we're extended family, right? We take care of each other."

He seemed to understand how lost I felt, and I was grateful for that, because an older guy like him - even if he was a counselor - should've steered clear of an uncool middle-schooler like me. But Luke had welcomed me into the cabin. He'd even stolen me some toiletries, which was the nicest thing anybody had done for me all day.

I decided to ask him my last big question, the one that had been bothering me all afternoon. "Clarisse, from Ares, was joking about me being 'Big Three' material. Then Annabeth... twice, she said I might be 'the one.' She said I should talk to the Oracle. What was that all about?"

Luke folded his knife. "I hate prophecies."

"What do you mean?"

His face twitched around the scar. "Let's just say I messed things up for everybody else. The last two years, ever since my trip to the Garden of the Hesperides went sour, Chiron hasn't allowed any more quests. Annabeth's been dying to get out into the world. She pestered Chiron so much he finally told her he already knew her fate. He'd had a prophecy from the Oracle. He wouldn't tell her the whole thing, but he said Annabeth wasn't destined to go on a quest yet. She had to wait until... somebody special came to the camp."

"Somebody special?"

"Don't worry about it," Andrea said. "Annabeth wants to think every new camper who comes through here is the omen she's been waiting for. Now, come on, it's dinnertime."

The moment she said it, a horn blew in the distance. Somehow, I knew it was a conch shell, even though I'd never heard one before.

Luke yelled, "Eleven, fall in!"

The whole cabin, about twenty of us, filed into the commons yard. We lined up in order of seniority, so of course I was dead last, Andrea with Luke up front. Campers came from the other cabins, too, except for the three empty cabins at the end, and cabin eight, which had looked normal in the daytime, but was now starting to glow silver as the sun went down.

We marched up the hill to the mess hall pavilion. Satyrs joined us from the meadow. Naiads emerged from the canoeing lake. A few other girls came out of the woods - and when I say out of the woods, I mean straight out of the woods. I saw one girl, about nine or ten years old, melt from the side of a maple tree and come skipping up the hill.

In all, there were maybe a hundred campers, a few dozen satyrs, and a dozen assorted wood nymphs and naiads.

At the pavilion, torches blazed around the marble columns. A central fire burned in a bronze brazier the size of a bathtub. Each cabin had its own table, covered in white cloth trimmed in purple. Four of the tables were empty, but cabin eleven's was way overcrowded. I had to squeeze on to the edge of a bench with half my butt hanging off.

I saw Grover sitting at table twelve with Mr. D, a few satyrs, and a couple of plump blond boys who looked just like Mr. D. Chiron stood to one side, the picnic table being way too small for a centaur.

Annabeth sat at table six with a bunch of serious-looking athletic kids, all with her gray eyes and honey-blond hair.

Clarisse sat behind me at Ares's table. She'd apparently gotten over being hosed down, because she was laughing and belching right alongside her friends.

Finally, Chiron pounded his hoof against the marble floor of the pavilion, and everybody fell silent. He raised a glass. "To the gods!"

Everybody else raised their glasses. "To the gods!"

Wood nymphs came forward with platters of food: grapes, apples, strawberries, cheese, fresh bread, and yes, barbecue! My glass was empty, but Luke said, "Speak to it. Whatever you want—nonalcoholic, of course."

I said, "Cherry Coke."

The glass filled with sparkling caramel liquid.

Then I had an idea. "Blue Cherry Coke."

The soda turned a violent shade of cobalt.

I took a cautious sip. Perfect...

I drank a toast to my mother.

She's not gone, I told myself. Not permanently, anyway. She's in the Underworld. And if that's a real place, then someday...

"Here you go, Percy," Luke said, handing me a platter of smoked brisket.

I loaded my plate and was about to take a big bite when I noticed everybody getting up, carrying their plates toward the fire in the center of the pavilion. I wondered if they were going for dessert or something.

"Come on," Luke told me.

As I got closer, I saw that everyone was taking a portion of their meal and dropping it into the fire, the ripest strawberry, the juiciest slice of beef, the warmest, most buttery roll.

Luke murmured in my ear, "Burnt offerings for the gods. They like the smell."

"You're kidding."

His look warned me not to take this lightly, but I couldn't help wondering why an immortal, all-powerful being would like the smell of burning food.

Luke approached the fire, bowed his head, and tossed in a cluster of fat red grapes. "Hermes."

Andrea followed, and dropped in three strawberries. "Morpheus."

I was next.

I wished I knew what god's name to say.

Finally, I made a silent plea. Whoever you are, tell me. Please.

I scraped a big slice of brisket into the flames.

When I caught a whiff of the smoke, I didn't gag.

It smelled nothing like burning food. It smelled of hot chocolate and fresh-baked brownies, hamburgers on the grill and wildflowers, and a hundred other good things that shouldn't have gone well together, but did. I could almost believe the gods could live off that smoke.

When everybody had returned to their seats and finished eating their meals, Chiron pounded his hoof again for our attention.

Mr. D got up with a huge sigh. "Yes, I suppose I'd better say hello to all you brats. Well, hello. Our activities director, Chiron, says the next capture the flag is Friday. Cabin five presently holds the laurels."

A bunch of ugly cheering rose from the Ares table.

"Personally," Mr. D continued, "I couldn't care less, but congratulations. Also, I should tell you that we have a new camper today. Peter Johnson."

Chiron murmured something.

"Er, Percy Jackson," Mr. D corrected. "That's right. Hurrah, and all that. Now run along to your silly campfire. Go on."

Everybody cheered. We all headed down toward the amphitheater, where Apollo's cabin led a sing-along. We sang camp songs about the gods and ate s'mores and joked around, and the funny thing was, I didn't feel that anyone was staring at me anymore. I felt that I was home.

Later in the evening, when the sparks from the campfire were curling into a starry sky, the conch horn blew again, and we all filed back to our cabins. I didn't realize how exhausted I was until I collapsed on my borrowed sleeping bag.    

My fingers curled around the Minotaur's horn. I thought about my mom, but I had good thoughts: her smile, the bedtime stories she would read me when I was a kid, the way she would tell me not to let the bedbugs bite.

When I closed my eyes, I fell asleep instantly.

That was my first day at CampHalf-Blood.

I wish I'd known how briefly I would get to enjoy my new home.