Work Header

The Idiot That Stole Zeus's Flashy Stick

Chapter Text

Look, I never asked for this; to be a half-blood. Sorry, I should probably introduce myself my name is Lance McClain and I am an absolute mess. Do you think I'm kidding? I have ADHD, dyslexia, and a knack for getting myself in trouble. In my fifth grade school, we went to Fort Ticonderoga for a school trip and while I was looking at the canon it fired. I didn't mean to fire it and I wasn't aiming at the bus but I ended up getting expelled anyway. In my fourth grade school, we went to an aquarium, I accidentally hit the wrong lever and we ended up swimming with the fishes and then- well you get the idea. The story should probably start with my school trip to the New York National Museum of Ancient Cultures to see the Greek and Roman sections. Thirty mental case kids on a big yellow bus with only two teachers. The trip was being chaperoned by the Latin teacher Mr.Brunner and the Pre-Algebra teacher from hell Ms.Dodds. Mr.Brunner is in a wheelchair with long dark brown hair and beard that had its occasional grey hairs. He smelled strongly of coffee, strawberries, and campfires and he had eyes that could have been thousands of years old but still managed to look mischievous (dear god I had to ask my English teacher for help with this word) like he knew a secret that no one else knows. Ms.Dodds seemed to be the opposite of Mr.Brunner, she was a mean lady that wore a leather jacket even though she was like sixty years old and looked like she would run into you with a car and zero remorse. I was determined to do well this trip and to have nothing happen as the principal at my school, Yancy Academy a school for troubled kids, threatens me with death by in-school suspension and a note home. I was having a hard time with this as Nancy Boboshit I mean Bobofit was throwing a peanut butter sandwich at my best friend, Hunk.
“I want to kill her” I growl as Hunk dodges another piece of sandwich
“You can’t get in trouble Lance you know that,” He says warningly
“I know, I know,” I groan “but she is just so annoying”
“ I know but you have to just ignore her” Hunk tries to comfort
Nancy eventually runs out of sandwich to throw and seems to grudgingly stop throwing stuff at Hunk. She turns around and starts talking with her ugly, jerk friends and finally leave us the hell alone. Hunk is my best friend, he was not very well liked in school which was why I’m not. We are both not from the United States and while that caused its own set of issues on top of that Hunk didn't quite seem to understand the modern world or its references which made him on the end of much bullying. When I first started going to Yancy Academy I was decently popular but after I stuck up for a bunch of not liked kids I became incredibly unpopular.
“We are here, please leave the bus in an orderly fashion” Mr.Brunner called from the front of the bus
Most of the kids did not leave in an orderly fashion. They pushed each other around trying to get out of the bus first like it was a race that determined there whether they lived or not.
“Hunk! Buddy! Let us go!” I sing song to Hunk, I’ll admit rather loudly.
The museum was huge the building’s architecture nodding to the ancient cultures with obelisks and tall marble columns that almost look like a building in Washington DC. When we got into the building I gasped, everything was beautiful, even though we just barely entered you could already see the history and art that might have been put there because they didn’t know where else to put it or maybe the reason was that they wanted people to see it as they walked in. When we got to the Greek and Roman Mythology Section is when Mr. Brunner started telling stories about the different artwork that depicted the different myths. I was actually trying to pay attention but Nancy was being an utter asshole as she kept making rude comments during his story.
“Would you shut up” I had attempted to whisper-yell but it came out as a bitter bark
The entire class turns and looks at me and suddenly I wish I could disappear through the floorboards. I can feel my face get hot as Mr.Brunner turn around with a raised eyebrow.
“Mr.McClain do you know what this tapestry depicts?” Mr.Brunner asked sounding slightly irritated
I look at the tapestry and to my relief, I recognize the story from a textbook.
“It's the story of Kronos and how he ate his children” I reply hesitantly
“Good but elaborate more” Brunner pushed
“Kronos was one the head Titan and when his wife had kids he ate them until his wife….Rhea hid baby Zeus until he was old enough and made his dad throw up his siblings” I continue hoping desperately that I am right and he can go back to teaching. As much as I love attention most of the time I don't like negative attention.
“Very good Lance. Zeus did give Kronos a mixture of mustard and wine that made him disgorge his children that since they were gods and goddesses grew up, alive in his stomach.” Brunner explained
“This doesn’t even matter it’s not like they are going to ask on a job interview about this stuff” Nancy complains
“Excellent question Ms.Bobofit,” Mr. Brunner says looking at Nancy with an upset look “Mr.McClain what do you think?”
“Um well” I start
“well Ms.Dodds has just informed me that it’s time for lunch” Mr.Brunner interrupts much to my relief
We all start heading out with the girls holding their stomachs and most of the boys being idiots.
“Lance, can I talk to you a minute,” Brunner asks
“Go ahead. Hey is someplace to sit” I tell Hunk as I walk over to Mr.Brunner
“I want you to think about my question,” Mr. Brunner says
“The one about Kronos?” I ask confused as all hell as I already answered that question and I did well with it
“No the one about my class and its importance,” Mr.Brunner said seriously
“Ok,” I said wondering where this is going
“My class is of great importance Lance, more than you can know. I can only accept the best from you, Lance. Now go on to lunch” Mr.Brunner says and then turns to look at a painting of a girl obviously long dead like he taught her and then went to her funeral.
Outside Hunk was sitting a ways away from the others on a bench between some trees. Hunk seemed to be the only one sitting down eating while the others were being nutcases. As I walked over to Hunk I saw a group of boys having a wrestling match and Nancy pickpocketing the tourists.
“Did you get detention?” Hunk asked with a quiver in his voice that told me he was scared for me
“No never from Brunner,” I say nonchalantly, It was true even he never gave me detention or sent me out of the class almost like he wanted nothing less than for me to miss a lesson.
We go on through our lunch just chatting and eating when Nancy Bobofit decides that dumping her half-eaten lunch on Hunks lap.
“Oops, Sorry” She exclaims, sarcasm dripping from her words with an elvish grin
“It’s ok Lance just leave her alone” Hunk says as pushing me back to sit down from when I got up to punch her
I sigh and let myself be pushed down. Nancy walks away to go pick more pockets, obviously disappointed that I didn't blow up on her. I look down the road and imagine getting into a cab and going to my mama’s little apartment in Manhattan. She would be happy to see me but she would give me a sad look and bring me back to Yancy saying how she loves me and misses me and hopes I do well in school.
“Hey Pea Brain!” Nancy yells interrupting my thoughts
“Shut up freckles!” I scream back hoping she goes away
Nancy comes over probably wanting a fight but I never find out because she falls into the fountain.
“Did you see-” “The water-” “damn!” “like a hand” I hear murmured around the courtyard
“LANCE PUSHED ME!!” Nancy wailed catching the attention of Ms.Dodds who for some reason thought Nancy was an angel and I devil spawn
Ms.Dodds speed walked to Nancy with surprising speed for someone who probably remembered what the dinosaurs looked like. She glared at me with such intensity that well if looks could kill I would be dead right now. After making sure that Nancy was okay she turned towards me with a thin wrinkly finger at me.
“Now Honey” She spat in such a sweet way it would taste like acid
“Ms.Dodds I didn’t put-” I started desperately trying not to get in trouble
“Honey, quiet and follow me,” Ms.Dodds said in her sickly sweet voice
Ms.Dodds and I walk up the stairs and I see Mr.Brunner sat in his motorized wheelchair. Mr.Brunner was reading a book and had an umbrella on his chair with a little eating table. He looks like he is in a motorized cafe table. When I look back at the stairs to follow Ms.Dodds up them she is already on the top step waving at me to follow her. My mind did that sometimes missed things like the world was a puzzle and I am missing a piece of it and I'm left staring at the blank space. I look one more time at Mr.Brunner in hopes he will save me and then run up the stairs following Ms.Dodds. We walk back through the museum as we walk I get more and more nervous.
‘Maybe she is going to force me to get Nancy new clothes’ I think noticing that we are walking in that general direction
We get to the turn you would make to go to the gift shop and I start to turn
“Not that way” Ms.Dodds barks at me from down the hallway
I jump not expecting her to say anything. I keep walking until we arrive at the Greek and Roman section.
“You have been causing us trouble honey” Ms.Dodds growled
“Yes, Mam,” I said hurriedly, I did not wanna make her any angrier than she was
“Confess and you will suffer less” She hissed her words dripping like acid off her tongue trying to burn me away
“Um...what?” I definitely do not squeak, teachers couldn't hurt kids..right?
“Enough Lance Emeterio McClain! I have been patient! Die, honey!” She roars with an inhuman hiss and gargles to her voice
She launches upward and starts turning into an a...over grown bat? Her nails morph into long talons and her jacket melts into her to become huge leathery wings. I stand frozen in fear thinking over and over ‘not real, not real, NoT rEaL, NOT REAL’. While having my internal panic Ms.’oh my god she is a leathery monster’ Dodds decides that slashing at my face would be incredibly fun. Just in time, I roll away from her with a yelp as I feel her hit the air just next to my head.
“What ho Lance!” I hear Brunner call as he throws what appears to be a pen at me until when I catch it, it has become a sword. It becomes a sword I’ve seen what feels like a thousand times, the one Brunner uses during the tournament day.
“Cool!” I shout until I see Ms. Dodd’s come in for another hit
“NoOoO” she shrieks as she tries to slash me again but I see it all in slow motion and slash her with the sword.
I look at her as she starts hissing as her body crumbles and bursts into golden yellow dust.
“What the hell just happened,” I whisper to myself “am I officially insane?”
When I look around I notice that the sword I was holding is now a pen and Mr.Brunner is gone. Quietly I walk back outside completely shaken from the experience. As I walk out I see Mr.Brunner looking like he has not moved from that spot almost as he has always been there reading a book. When I walk up to him he looks up from his book with a bored look in those thousand-year-old eyes
“Ah Mr.McClain my pen, next time please bring your own writing utensil,” He says taking the pen from my trembling fingers
I slowly walk away when Nancy pops her ugly freckled face into my line of sight.
“I hope Ms.Turner tore you a new one” Nancy sneered
“Who?” I ask genuinely confused
“The pre-algebra teacher stupid,” Nancy says like it was obvious even though I had never heard that name, ever
I jog over to Mr.Brunner in a panic and tap his shoulder.
“Yes?” Mr.Brunner asked annoyed at being interrupted
“Where is Ms.Dodds?” I ask hurriedly
“Who?” Mr.Brunner asked sounding concerned for me
“The pre-algebra teacher,” I say impatiently at having the same conversation twice in the same ten minutes
“Lance, as far as I know, there has never been a teacher named Ms.Dodds at Yancy Academy” Mr.Brunner states
“What?” I think starting to breathe faster

Chapter Text

Everyone agreed with Mr.Brunner, ‘Ms. Dodds never existed’. The entire school seemed to be playing a practical joke on me, normally I like a prank as much as the next person but this was ridiculous. I almost believed them but Hunk was a horrendous lier. During the rest of the tour I tried to spur Ms.Dodds references on them to trip them up but they only looked at me like I was crazy. At the end of the tour when everyone was on the bus and we were almost ready to leave all we had to do was wait for the bus driver to start driving. Then a pudgy black haired lady that couldn’t be more than forty years old got on the bus who I had never seen before in my life. This lady seemed to be the opposite of Ms.Dodds, she wore light pastels and seemed to have an overall sunny disposition. I had no clue who this lady was until Nancy called her ‘Ms. Turner’. People seem to think she had been our pre-algebra teacher since Christmas. I am used to the occasional mix up with reality like missing something that happened as it’s part of having ADHD but this 24/7 hallucination was too much to handle. The rest of the year was bad, to say the least. My grades slipped from C’s to D’s and I got into a fight with Nancy almost every day. The only class I still liked was Latin maybe because of Mr.Brunner but at least I kept a C in his class. I was sent out of most classes into either the hall or the headmaster's office. Eventually, the headmaster sent a letter home to say that next year I would not be invited back to Yancy Academy next year.
Fine, I told myself. Just fine.
I was homesick anyway.
I wanted to be with my mom in our little apartment on the Upper East Side, even if I had to go to public school and put up with my obnoxious stepfather and his stupid poker parties.
Although... there were things I'd miss at Yancy. The view of the woods out my dorm window, the Hudson River in the distance, the smell of pine trees. I'd miss Hunk, who'd been a good friend, even if he was a little strange. I worried about how he'd survive next year without me. I'd miss Latin class too, Mr. Brunner's crazy tournament days and his determination that I could do well. As exam week got closer, Latin was the only test I studied for. I hadn't forgotten what Mr. Brunner had told me about this subject being life and death for me. I wasn't sure why, but I'd started to believe him. Which I thought was quite ridiculous at the time as most classes you never use any of the information again.
The evening before my final, I got so frustrated I threw the Cambridge Guide to Greek Mythology across my dorm room. Words had started swimming off the page, circling my head, the letters doing one eighties as if they were riding snowboards. There was no way I was going to remember the difference between Chiron and Charon, or Polydectes and Polydeuces. What the hell is up with the changing of names by the way? It seems very mean. Conjugating those Latin verbs? Forget it I might as well jump out a window.
I remembered Mr. Brunner's serious expression, his thousand-year-old eyes. I will accept only the best from you, Lance McClain.
I took a deep breath. I picked up the mythology book.
I'd never asked a teacher for help before. Maybe if I talked to Mr. Brunner, he could give me some pointers or the answers, not likely on the last one. At least I could apologize for the big fat D I was about to score on his exam. I didn't want to leave Yancy Academy with him thinking I hadn't tried or even attempted.
I walked downstairs to the faculty offices. Most of them were dark, empty, and quite creepy, but Mr. Brunner's door was ajar, light from his window stretching ominously across the hallway floor.
I was only a couple of steps from the door when I heard people talking inside the office. Mr. Brunner asked a question that I couldn't quite make out. A voice that was definitely Hunk’s said "... worried about Lance, sir."
I stopped dead in my tracks.
I'm not usually an eavesdropper, but I dare you to try not listening if you hear your best friend talking about you to an adult.
I slowly got closer.
"... alone this summer," Hunk was saying. "I mean, a Kindly One in the school! Now that we know for sure, and they know too-"
"We would only make matters worse by rushing him," Mr. Brunner said. "We need the boy to mature more.”
"But he may not have time. The summer solstice deadline- " Hunk started
"Will have to be without him, Hunk. Let him enjoy his ignorance while he still can." Mr. Brunner interrupted
"Sir, he saw her... ."
"His imagination," Mr. Brunner insisted. "The Mist over the students and staff will be enough to convince him of that."
"Sir, I ... I can't fail again." Hunk's voice was choked with emotion.
"You haven't failed, Hunk," Mr. Brunner said kindly. "I should have seen her for what she was. Now let's just worry about keeping Lance alive until next fall-"
The mythology book dropped out of my hand and hit the floor with a thud.
Mr. Brunner went silent. My heart hammering, I picked up the book and backed down the hall. A shadow slid across the lighted glass of Brunner's office door, the shadow of something much taller than my wheelchair-bound teacher, holding something that looked suspiciously like an archer's bow. I opened the nearest door and slipped inside. A few moments later I heard a slow clop-clop-clop, like muffled wood blocks being worn like shoes, then a sound like an animal snuffling right outside my door. A large, dark shape paused in front of the glass, then moved on. A bead of sweat trickled down my neck. Somewhere in the hallway, Mr. Brunner spoke.
"Nothing," he murmured. "My nerves haven't been right since the winter solstice."
"I could have sworn ..." Hunk said
"Go back to the dorm," Mr. Brunner told him. "You've got a long day of exams tomorrow."
"Don't remind me." Hunk spoke bitterly
The lights went out in Mr.Brunner's office. I waited for what felt like forever until I deemed it safe to walk back to my dorm.
Finally, I slipped out into the hallway and made my way back up to the dorm. Hunk was lying on his bed, studying his Latin exam notes like he'd been there all night.
"Hey," he said, bleary-eyed. "You going to be ready for this test?"
I didn't answer only shrugged at him.
"You look awful." He frowned, sounding concerned. "Is everything okay?"
"Just... tired."
I turned so he couldn't read my expression, and started getting ready for bed.
I didn't understand what I'd heard downstairs. I wanted to believe I'd imagined the whole thing. But one thing was clear: Hunk and Mr. Brunner were talking about me behind my back. They thought I was in some kind of danger which was odd. I was probably only in danger of being yelled at by my stepfather or maybe from boredom this summer.
The next afternoon, as I was leaving the three-hour Latin exam, my eyes swimming with all the Greek and Roman names I'd misspelled, Mr. Brunner called me back inside. For a moment, I was worried he'd found out about my eavesdropping the night before, but that didn't seem to be the problem and mentally prepared for a lecture.
"Lance," he said. "Don't be discouraged about leaving Yancy. It's ... it's for the best."
His tone was kind, but the words still embarrassed the hell out of me. Even though he was speaking quietly, the other kids finishing the test could hear. Nancy Bobofit smirked at me and made sarcastic little kissing motions with her lips with an ugly smirk.
I mumbled, "Okay, sir." with an edge of hurt to my voice
"I mean ..." Mr. Brunner wheeled his chair back and forth like he wasn't sure what to say. "This isn't the right place for you, Lance. It was only a matter of time."
My eyes stung. My favorite teacher was sitting there, in front of the class, telling me I couldn't handle it. After saying he believed in me all year, now he was telling me I was destined to get kicked out.
"Right," I said, trembling
"No, no," Mr. Brunner said. "Oh, curse it all. What I'm trying to say ... you're not normal, Lance. That's nothing to be-"
“Thanks," I blurted. "Thanks a lot, sir, for reminding me. "Lance-"
But I was already gone. On the last day of the term, I shoved my clothes into my suitcase. The other guys were joking around, talking about their vacation plans. One of them was going on a hiking trip to Switzerland. Another was cruising the Caribbean for a month. They were juvenile delinquents, like me, but they were rich juvenile delinquents. Their dads or moms were executives, or ambassadors, or celebrities. I was a nobody, from a family of nobodies.
They asked me what I'd be doing this summer and I told them I was going back to the city. What I didn't tell them was that I'd have to get a summer job walking dogs or selling magazine subscriptions, and spend my free time worrying about where I'd go to school in the fall.
"Oh," one of the guys said. "That's cool."
They went back to their conversation as I'd never existed. The only person I dreaded saying goodbye to was Hunk, but as it turned out, I didn't have to. He'd booked a ticket to Manhattan on the same Greyhound as I had, so there we were, together again, heading into the city.
During the whole bus ride, Hunk kept glancing nervously down the aisle, watching the passengers around us. It occurred to me that he'd always acted nervous and jumpy when we left Yancy as if he expected something bad to happen. I had always assumed he was concerned about getting teased. But no one was going to tease him on the Greyhound.
Eventually, I lost my patience.
“Looking for kindly one?” I said
I admitted about eavesdropping on him and Mr. Brunner the night before the exam.
Hunks eyes twitched “How much did you hear?” he asked looking and sounding scared.
"Oh ... not much. What's the summer solstice deadline?" He winced. "Look, Lance... I was just worried for you, see? I mean, hallucinating about demon math teachers ..." "Hunk-"
"And I was telling Mr. Brunner that maybe you were overstressed or something, because there was no such person as Mrs. Dodds, and ..."
"Hunk, you're a really, really bad liar."
His ears turned a violent shade of pink.
From his shirt pocket, he fished out a grubby business card.
"Just take this, okay? In case you need me this summer.” The card was in fancy script, which was murder on my dyslexic eyes, but I finally made out something like:
Tsuyoshi ‘Hunk’ Garrett
HB Keeper
Half-Blood Hill Long Island, New York
(800) 009-0009
"What's Half-"
"Don't say it aloud!" he yelped. "That's my, um ... summer address."
My heart sank. Hunk had a summer home. I'd never considered that his family might be as rich as the others at Yancy. I had always assumed he was more like me.
"Okay," I said glumly. "So, like, if I want to come to visit your mansion."
He nodded. "Or ... or if you need me."
"Why would I need you?" It came out harsher than I meant it to.
Hunk blushed all the way down to his Adam's apple.
"Look, Lance, the truth is, I-I kind of have to protect you."
I started to chuckle when I realized he was serious. Then I just blankly stared at him.
All year long, I'd gotten in fights, keeping bullies away from him. I'd lost sleep worrying that he'd get beaten up next year without me. And here he was acting like he was the one who defended me.
"Hunk," I said, "what exactly are you protecting me from?"
Wondering if he was joking or not. If he wasn’t what the hell did he mean. Sure he is a big guy but he is just a giant teddy bear. He wouldn’t hurt a fly even if his life counted on it.
There was a huge grinding noise under our feet. Black smoke poured from the dashboard and the whole bus filled with a smell like rotten eggs. The driver cursed and limped the Greyhound over to the side of the highway. After a few minutes clanking around in the engine compartment, the driver announced that we'd all have to get off. Hunk and I filed outside with everybody else. We were on a stretch of country road a place you'd never notice if you didn't break down there. On our side of the highway was nothing but maple trees and litter from passing cars. On the other side, across four lanes of asphalt shimmering with the afternoon heat, was an old-fashioned fruit stand.
The stuff on sale looked really good: heaping boxes of blood red cherries and apples, walnuts and apricots, jugs of cider in a claw-foot tub full of ice.
There were no customers, just three old ladies sitting in rocking chairs in the shade of a maple tree, knitting the biggest pair of socks I'd ever seen. I mean these socks were the size of sweaters, but they were clearly socks. The lady on the right knitted one of them. The lady on the left knitted the other. The lady in the middle held an enormous basket of electric-blue yarn.
All three women looked ancient, with pale faces wrinkled like fruit leather, silver hair tied back in white bandannas, bony arms sticking out of bleached cotton dresses.
The weirdest thing was, they seemed to be looking right at me.
I looked over at Hunk to say something about this and saw that the blood had drained from his face. He looked like someone just told him a terrifying story or something.
"Hunk?" I said. "Hey, man-"
"Tell me they're not looking at you. They are, aren't they?" "Yeah. Weird, huh? You think those socks would fit me?" "Not funny, Lance. Not funny at all."
The old lady in the middle took out a huge pair of scissors-gold and silver, long-bladed, like shears. I heard Hunk catch his breath.
"We're getting on the bus," he told me. "Come on." "What?" I said looking at him like he’s crazy. "It's a thousand degrees in there."
"Come on!'"
He pried open the door and climbed inside, but I stayed back. No way was I getting in there with how hot it is in there.
Across the road, the old ladies were still watching me. The middle one cut the yarn, and I swear I could hear that snip across four lanes of traffic. Her two friends balled up the electric-blue socks, leaving me wondering who they could possibly be for-Sasquatch or Godzilla.
At the rear of the bus, the driver wrenched a big chunk of smoking metal out of the engine compartment. The bus shuddered, and the engine roared back to life. The passengers cheered.
"Darn right!" yelled the driver. He slapped the bus with his hat. "Everybody back on board!"
Once we got going, I started feeling feverish, as if I'd caught the flu. Hunk didn't look much better. He was shivering and his teeth were chattering.
“Yeah?” Hunk said barely looking at me
“What are you not telling me? Oh, and what the hell is going on? Might as well answer that while you are on it”
He dabbed his forehead with his shirt sleeve. "Lance, what did you see back at the fruit stand?"
"You mean the old ladies? What is it about them, man? They're not like ... Mrs. Dodds, are they?"
His expression was hard to read, but I got the feeling that the fruit-stand ladies were something much, much worse than Mrs. Dodds.
He said, "Just tell me what you saw."
"The middle one took out her scissors, and she cut the yarn."
He closed his eyes and made a gesture with his fingers that might've been crossing himself, but it wasn't. It was something else, something almost-older.
He said, "You saw her snip the cord."
"Yeah. So?" But even as I said it, I knew it was a big deal. "This is not happening," Hunk mumbled.
He started chewing at his thumb.
"I don't want this to be like the last time."
"What last time?"
"Always sixth grade. They never get past sixth."
"Hunk," I said slowly because he was really starting to scare me. "What are you talking about?"
"Let me walk you home from the bus station. Promise me."
This seemed like a really strange request to me, but I promised he would.
"Is this like a superstition or something?" I asked.
No answer.
"Hunk that snipping off the yarn. Does that mean somebody is going to die?"
He looked at me sadly, like he was already picking the kind of flowers I'd like best on my coffin.

Chapter Text

Confession time: I ditched Hunk as soon as we got to the bus terminal.
I know, I know. It was rude. But Hunk was freaking me out, looking at me like I was a dead man, muttering "Why does this always happen?" and "Why does it have to be sixth grade?"
Whenever he got upset, Hunk's bladder acted up, so I wasn't surprised when, as soon as we got off the bus, he made me promise to wait for him, then made a beeline for the restroom. Instead of waiting, I got my suitcase, slipped outside, and caught the first taxi uptown.
"East One-hundred-and-fourth and First," I told the driver.
A word about my Mama, before you meet her.
Her name is Aymee McClain and she's the best person in the world, which just proves my thought that the best people have the most rotten luck. She grew up in Cuba near Varadero beach with my Abuela and Abuelo, who I unfortunately never meet. My mom didn't talk about them much but when she did she talked about how nice they were. When she was twelve her parents died in a plane crash. She moved in with her Tio, who she hadn’t seen in two years, in the United States. When her Tio was nineteen he moved away but still loved them and visited every two years. She wanted to be a novelist, she spent her entire high school working to save enough money for a college with a good creative-writing program because her Tio didn't have enough money to send her. Then her Tio got cancer, and she had to quit school her senior year to take care of him. After he died, she was left with barely any money, no family, and no diploma.
Her Tio left her everything he had but that was not much.
The only good break she ever got was meeting my dad.
I don't have any memories of him, just this sort of warm glow, maybe the barest trace of his smile. My mom doesn't like to talk about him because it makes her sad. She has no pictures. See, they weren't married. She told me he was rich and important, and their relationship was a secret. Then one day, he set sail across the Atlantic on some important journey, and he never came back.
Lost at sea, my mom told me. Not dead. Lost at sea.
She worked odd jobs, took night classes to get her high school diploma, and raised me on her own.
She never complained or got mad. Not even once. But I knew I wasn't an easy kid.
She eventually married Gabe Ugliano, who was nice the first thirty seconds we knew him, then showed his true colors as a world-class jerk and probably an Oscar in acting. When I was young, I nicknamed him Smelly Gabe. I'm not sorry because it's the truth. The guy reeked like moldy garlic pizza wrapped in sweaty, dirty gym shorts. Between the two of us, we made my mom's life pretty hard. The way Smelly Gabe treated her, the way he and I got along ... well, when I came home is a good example.
I walked into our little apartment, hoping my mom would be home from work. Instead, Smelly Gabe was in the living room, playing poker with his buddies. The television blared ESPN. Chips and beer cans were strewn all over the carpet. Hardly looking up, he said around his cigar, "So, you're home."
"Where's my Mama?"
"Working," he said. "You got any cash?"
That was it. No Welcome back. Good to see you. How has your life been for the last six months?
Gabe had put on weight. He kind of looked like an ugly tuskless walrus in cheap thrift-store clothes. He had maybe three hairs on his head, all combed over his bald scalp as if that made him handsome or something. Which it didn't not even a professional could do that.
He managed the Electronics Mega Mart in Queens, but he stayed home most of the time. I don't know why he hadn't been fired a long time ago. He just kept on collecting paychecks, spending the money on cigars that made me nauseous, and on beer, of course. Always beer. Whenever I was home, he expected me to provide his gambling funds. He called that our ‘guy secret’. Meaning, if I told my Mama, he would probably kick me to the curb.
"I don't have any cash," I told him.
He raised a bushy greasy eyebrow.
Gabe could sniff out money like a bloodhound, which was surprising since his own smell should've covered up everything else.
"You took a taxi from the bus station," he said. “Probably paid with a twenty. Got six, seven bucks in change. Somebody expects to live under this roof, he ought to carry his own weight. Am I right, Eddie?"
Eddie, the super of the apartment building, looked at me with sympathy.
"Come on, Gabe," he said. "The kid just got here."
"Am I right?" Gabe repeated.
Eddie scowled into his bowl of pretzels. The other two guys passed gas in harmony.
"Fine," I said as I dug a wad of dollars out of my pocket and threw the money on the table. "I hope you lose."
"Your report card came, smartass!" he shouted after me. "I wouldn't act so snooty!"
I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn't my room. During school months, it was Gabe's "study." He didn't study anything in there except old car and girl magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer. His cologne smelled like a corpse which he for so reason thought smelled good.
I dropped my suitcase on the bed. Home sweet home. Gabe's smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady's shears snipping the yarn. But as soon as I thought that, my legs felt weak. I remembered Hunk's look of panic-how he'd made me promise I wouldn't go home without him.
A sudden chill rolled through me. I felt like someone or something was looking for me right now, maybe pounding its way up the stairs, growing long, horrible talons.
Then I heard Mama's voice. "Lance sweetie?"
She opened the bedroom door, and my fears evaporated. My Mama can make me feel good just by walking into the room. Her eyes sparkle and change color in the light. Her smile is as warm as a quilt. She's got a few gray streaks mixed in with her long brown hair, but I never think of her as old. When she looks at me, it's like she's seeing all the good things about me, none of the bad. I
've never heard her raise her voice or say an unkind word to anyone, not even me or Gabe.
"Oh, mijo." She hugged me tightly. "I can't believe it. You've grown since Christmas!"
Her red, white, and blue Sweet on America uniform smelled like the best things in the world: chocolate, licorice, and all the other stuff she sold at the candy shop in Grand Central Station. She'd brought me a huge bag of ‘free samples’ like she always did when I came home.
We sat together on the edge of the bed. While I attacked the blueberry sour strings, she ran her hand through my hair and demanded to know everything I hadn't put in my letters. She didn't mention anything about my getting expelled. She didn't seem to care about that.
Was I okay? Was her little boy doing all right?
I told her she was smothering me, and to lay off and all that, but not so secretly, I was really, really glad to see her.
From the other room, Gabe yelled, "Hey, Aymee how about some bean dip, huh?"
I narrowed my eyes and gritted my teeth at the sound of his voice.
My mom is the kindest women in the world. She should be married to a millionaire, someone who would be kind to her, not an asshole like Gabe.
For her sake, I tried to sound upbeat about my last days at Yancy Academy. I told her I wasn't too down about the expulsion. I'd lasted almost the whole year this time. I'd made some new friends. I'd done pretty well in Latin. And honestly, the fights hadn't been as bad as the headmaster said. I liked Yancy Academy. I really did. I put such a good spin on the year, I almost convinced myself. I started choking up, thinking about Hunk and Mr. Brunner. Even Nancy Bobofit suddenly didn't seem so bad. Until that trip to the museum ...
"What?" my Mama asked. Her eyes tugged at my conscience, trying to pull out the secrets. "Did something scare you?"
"No, Mama." I felt bad lying.
I wanted to tell her about Mrs. Dodds and the three old ladies with the yarn, but I thought it would sound stupid. She pursed her lips. She knew I was holding back, but she didn't push me. I should have known she would see through my lies as she knows me better than anyone.
"I have a surprise for you," she said. "We're going to the beach."
My eyes widened in anticipation. "Montauk?"
"Three nights same cabin."
She smiled. "As soon as I get changed."
I couldn't believe it. My Mama and I hadn't been to Montauk the last two summers, because Gabe said there wasn't enough money.
Gabe appeared in the doorway and growled, "Bean dip, Aymee? Didn't you hear me?"
I wanted to punch him, but I met my Mama's eyes and I understood she was offering me a deal: be nice to Gabe for a little while. Just until she was ready to leave for Montauk. Then we would get out of here.
"I was on my way, honey," she told Gabe. "We were just talking about the trip."
Gabe's eyes got small. "The trip? You mean you were serious about that?"
"I knew it," I muttered sourly.
"He won't let us go."
"Of course he will," my Mama said evenly. "Your stepfather is just worried about money. That's all. Besides," she added softly, "Gabe won't have to settle for bean dip. I'll make him enough seven-layer dip for the whole weekend. Guacamole. Sour cream. The works."
Gabe softened a bit at the mention at that. "So this money for your trip ... it comes out of your clothes budget, right?" "Yes, honey," my mama said.
"And you won't take my car anywhere but there and back." "We'll be very careful."
Gabe scratched his double chin looking like he was thinking but I knew that wasn’t the case he's much too stupid for that. "Maybe if you hurry with that seven-layer dip ... And maybe if the brat apologizes for interrupting my poker game.”
Maybe if I kick you in your soft spot, I thought. And make you sing soprano for a week. I chuckled in my head at the thought.
But my mama's eyes warned me not to make him mad. Why did she put up with this guy? I wanted to scream. Why did she care what he thought or wanted?
"I'm sorry," I muttered. "I'm really sorry I interrupted your incredibly important poker game. Please go back to it right now."
Gabe's eyes narrowed. His tiny brain was probably trying to detect sarcasm in my statement.
“Yeah. Whatever,” he whispered walking to the kitchen back to his game.
"Thank you, Lance," my mom said. "Once we get to Montauk, we'll talk more about... whatever you've forgotten to tell me, okay?"
For a moment, I thought I saw anxiety in her eyes-the same fear I'd seen in Hunks eyes during the bus ride-as if my mom too felt an odd chill in the air. But then her smile returned, and I figured I must have imagined it. She ruffled my hair and went to make Gabe his seven-layer dip.
An hour later we were ready to leave.
Gabe took a break from his poker game long enough to watch me lug my mama's bags to the car. He kept griping and groaning about losing her cooking and more importantly, his '78 Camaro-for the whole weekend.
"Not a scratch on this car, smartass," he warned me as I loaded the last bag. "Not one little scratch."
Like I'd be the one driving. I was twelve. But that didn't matter to Gabe. If a seagull so much as pooped on his car, he'd blame me.
Watching him what looked like waddle back toward the apartment building, I got so mad I did something I can't explain. As Gabe reached the doorway, I made the hand gesture I'd seen Hunk make on the bus, a sort of warding off evil gesture, a clawed hand over my heart, then a shoving movement toward Gabe. If anyone was pure evil that I needed to ward off was Gabe. The screen door slammed shut so hard it whacked him in the butt and sent him flying up the staircase as if he'd been shot from a gun. Maybe it was just the wind or some crazy accident with the hinges, but I didn't stay long enough to find out.
I got in the car and told my mama “Llévanos rápido” (roughly means ‘get us there fast’)
Our rental cabin was on the south shore, way out at the tip of Long Island. It was a little pastel box with faded curtains, half sunken into the dunes. There was always sand in the sheets and spiders in the cabinets, and most of the time the sea was too cold to swim in. I loved the place. We'd been going there since I was a baby. My Mama had been going even longer. She never exactly said, but I knew why the beach was special to her. It was the place where she'd met my Papa. As we got closer to Montauk, she seemed to grow younger, years of worry and work disappearing from her face. Her eyes turned the color of the sea from her tired green. We got there at about sunset, opened all the cabin's windows, and went through our usual cleaning routine. We walked on the beach, fed blue corn chips to the seagulls, and munched on blue jelly beans, blue saltwater taffy, and all the other free samples my mom had brought from work. I guess I should explain the blue food

See, Gabe had once told my mama there was no such thing. They had this fight, which seemed l\ small thing at the time. But ever since, my mama went out of her way to eat blue. She baked blue birthday cakes. She mixed blueberry smoothies. She bought blue corn tortilla chips and brought home blue candy from the shop. This together with keeping her maiden name, McClain, rather than calling herself Mrs. Ugliano was proof that she wasn't totally suckered by Gabe. She did have a rebellious side, like me.
When it got dark, we made a fire. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. Mama told me stories about when she was a kid, back before her parents died in the plane crash. She told me about the books she wanted to write someday when she had enough money to quit the candy shop. It always felt more like home at Montauk then in the apartment with Gabe.
Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask about what was always on my mind whenever we came to Montauk, my Papa. Mama's eyes went all misty. I figured she would tell me the same things she always did, but I never got tired of hearing them.
"He was kind, Lance," she said. "Tall, handsome, and powerful. But gentle, too. You have his darker hair, you know, and his green eyes."
I had always assumed that I had his hair as Mama had light brown hair and my hair was a darker brown but hearing it felt good.
Mama fished a blue jelly bean out of her candy bag.
"I wish he could see you, Lance. He would be so proud."
I wondered how she could say that. What was so great about me? A dyslexic, hyperactive boy with a D+ average report card, kicked out of school for the sixth time in six years.
"How old was I?" I asked. "I mean ... when he left?"
She watched the flames.
"He was only with me for one summer, Lance. Right here at this beach. This cabin."
"But... he knew me as a baby."
"No, honey. He knew I was expecting a baby, but he never saw you. He had to leave before you were born."
I tried to wrap my head around with the fact that I seemed to remember ... something about my father. A warm glow. A smile. I had always assumed he knew me as a baby. My mama had never said it outright, but still, I'd felt it must be true.
Now, to be told that he'd never even seen me ...I felt angry at my Papa. Maybe it was stupid, but I resented him for going on that ocean voyage, for not having the guts to marry my mom. He'd left us, and now we were stuck with Smelly Gabe.
"Are you going to send me away again?" I asked her sounding hurt. "To another boarding school?"
She pulled a marshmallow from the fire.
"I don't know, mijo." Her voice was heavy. "I think ... I think we'll have to do something."
"Because you don't want me around?"
I regretted the words as soon as they were out. My mama's eyes welled with tears. She took my hand, squeezed it tight.
"Oh, Lance, no. I-I have to, mi amor. For your own good. I have to send you away."
Her words reminded me of what Mr. Brunner had said that it was best for me to leave Yancy.
"Because I'm not normal," I said.
"You say that as if it's a bad thing, Lance. But you don't realize how important you are. I thought Yancy Academy would be far enough away. I thought you'd finally be safe." "Safe from what?"
She met my eyes, and a wave of memories came back to me all the weird, scary things that had ever happened to me, some of which I had tried desperately to forget.
During third grade, a man in a black trench coat had stalked me on the playground. When the teachers threatened to call the police, he went away growling, but no one believed me when I told them that under his broad-brimmed hat, the man only had one eye, right in the middle of his head.
Before that one of my really early memories. I was in preschool I think, and a teacher accidentally put me down for a nap in a cot that a snake had slithered into. My mama screamed when she came to pick me up and found me playing with a limp, scaly rope I'd somehow managed to strangle to death with my meaty toddler hands.
In every single school, something creepy had happened, something unsafe, and I was forced to move.
I knew I should tell my mom about the old ladies at the fruit stand, and Mrs. Dodds at the museum, about my weird hallucination that I had killed my math teacher into dust with a sword. But I couldn't make myself tell her. I had a strange feeling the news would end our trip to Montauk, and I didn't want that to happen.
"I've tried to keep you as close to me as I could," my mama said. "They told me that was a mistake. But there's only one other option, Lance, the place your Papa wanted to send you. And I just... I just can't bring myself to do it."
"My father wanted me to go to a special school?" "Not a school,"
she said softly. "A summer camp."
My head was spinning.
Why would my papa who hadn't even stayed around long enough to see me born, talk to my mom about a summer camp? And if it was so important, why hadn't she ever mentioned it before?
"I'm sorry, Lance," she said, seeing the look in my eyes. "But I can't talk about it. I-I couldn't send you to that place. It might mean saying goodbye to you for good."
“For good? But if it’s only a summer camp, not an orphanage….”
She turned toward the fire, and I knew from her expression that if I asked her any more questions she would start to cry. That night I had a vivid dream.
It was storming on the beach, and two beautiful animals, an elegant white horse, and a golden eagle were trying to kill each other at the edge of the surf. The eagle swooped down and slashed the horse's muzzle with its huge talons. The horse reared up and kicked at the Eagles' wings.
As they fought, the ground rumbled, and a monstrous voice chuckled somewhere beneath the earth, making the animals fight harder.
I ran toward them, knowing I had to stop them from killing each other, but I was running in slow motion. I knew I would be too late. I felt an odd connection to the horse like it was a loved one. I saw the eagle dive down, its beak aimed at the horse's wide eyes.
I screamed, “No!”
I woke with a start with tears streaming down my cheeks and a scream on my lips.
Outside, it really was storming, the kind of storm that cracks trees and blows down houses. There was no horse or eagle on the beach, just lightning making false daylight, and twenty-foot waves pounding the dunes like artillery. With the next thunderclap, my mama woke.
She sat up, eyes wide, and said, "Hurricane."
I knew that was crazy. Long Island never sees hurricanes this early in the summer. But the ocean seemed to have forgotten. The weather had been odd since Christmas. Like the ocean and the sky were having a competition on who could destroy the land faster. Over the roar of the wind, I heard a distant bellow, an angry, tortured sound that made my hair stand on end. Then a much closer noise sounded, like horseshoes pounding against the sand. A desperate voice-someone yelling, pounding on our cabin door.
My mama sprang out of bed in her nightgown and threw open the lock.
Hunk stood framed in the doorway against a backdrop of pouring rain.
"Searching all night," he gasped. "What were you thinking?" My Mama looked at me in terror-not scared of Hunk, but of why he'd come.
"Lance," she said, shouting to be heard. "What happened at school? What didn't you tell me?"
"O Zeu kai alloi theoi!" he yelled. "It's right behind me! Didn't you tell her?"
I was too shocked to register that he'd just cursed in Ancient Greek, and I'd understood him perfectly. I was too shocked to wonder how Grover had gotten here by himself in the middle of the night.
My mama looked at me sternly and talked in a tone she'd never used before: "Lance. Tell me now!"
I stammered something about the old ladies at the fruit stand and Mrs. Dodds, and my mom stared at me, her face deathly pale in the flashes of lightning.
She grabbed her purse, tossed me my rain jacket, and said, "Get to the car. Both of you. Go!"
Hunk ran to the car and got a better view of his orange shirt and… and...ancient Greek armor.
It wasn’t exactly ancient Greek armor as it looked like it was made of leather instead of metal like an under outfit to armor.
But still…it..was...ARMOR.

Chapter Text

We tore through the night along dark country roads. Wind slamming against the Camaro. Rain lashed the windshield. I didn't know how my mama could see anything, but she kept her foot on the gas. I was still very confused why Hunk was wearing armor and what the hell we were running from.
All I could think to say was, "So, you and Mama... know each other?"
Hunk's eyes flitted to the rearview mirror, though there were no cars. "Not exactly," he said. "I mean, we've never met in person. But she knew I was watching you."
"Watching me?"
"Keeping tabs on you. Making sure you were okay. But I wasn't faking being your friend," he added hastily. "I am your friend."
“What the hell are you wearing?”
"That doesn't matter right now."
“Doesn't matter”
“Really because right now you look like a disheveled reenactor”
“Oh my gods, I do don't I? Its protection”
Oh my...gods? Why did he make it plural?
“From what spartans?”
Hunk just glares at me
“No from monsters”
"Whoa. Wait. monsters. You mean like ... Mr. Brunner's myths?"
"Were those old ladies at the fruit stand a myth Lance Was Mrs. Dodds a myth?"
"So you admit there was a Mrs. Dodds!"
"Of course."
"Then why-"
"The less you knew, the fewer monsters you'd attract," Grover said like that should be perfectly obvious. "We put Mist over the humans' eyes. We hoped you'd think the Kindly One was a hallucination. But it was no good. You started to realize who you are."
"Who I-wait a minute, what do you mean?"
The weird bellowing noise rose up again somewhere behind us, closer than before. Whatever was chasing us was still on our trail.
"Lance," my mama said, "there's too much to explain and not enough time. We have to get you to safety."
"Safety from what? Who's after me?"
"Oh, nobody much," Grover said, obviously still annoyed with the reenactor comment. "Just the Lord of the Dead and a few of his blood-thirstiest minions."
"Sorry, Mrs.McClain. Could you drive faster, please?"
tried to wrap my mind around what was happening, but I couldn't do it. I knew this wasn't a dream. I had no imagination. I could never dream up something this weird. My mom made a hard left.
We swerved onto a narrower road, racing past darkened farmhouses and wooded hills and PICK YOUR OWN STRAWBERRIES signs on white picket fences.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"The summer camp I told you about." My mama's voice was tight; she was trying for my sake not to be scared "The place your Papa wanted to send you."
"The place you didn't want me to go." I pointed out
"Please, dear," my mama begged. "This is hard enough. Try to understand. You're in danger."
"Because some old ladies cut yarn."
"Those weren't old ladies," Grover said. "Those were the Fates. Do you know what it means-the fact they appeared in front of you? They only do that when you're about to ... when someone's about to die."
"Whoa. You said 'you.'"
"No, I didn't. I said 'someone.'"
"You meant 'you.' As in me."
"I meant you, like 'someone.' Not you, you."
"Boys!" my mama said.
She pulled the wheel hard to the right, and I got a glimpse of a figure she'd swerved to avoid-a dark fluttering shape now lost behind us in the storm.
"What was that?" I asked.
"We're almost there," my mama said, ignoring my question. "Another mile. Please. Please. Please."
I didn't know where we were going, but I leaned forward in the car in anticipation, wanting us to arrive faster.
Outside, nothing but rain and darkness-the kind of empty countryside you get way out on the tip of Long Island. I thought about Mrs. Dodds and the moment when she'd changed into the thing with pointy teeth and leathery wings. My limbs went numb from delayed shock. She really hadn't been human. She'd meant to kill me.
Then I thought about Mr. Brunner ... and the sword he had thrown me.
Before I could ask Grover about that, the hair rose on the back of my neck.
There was a blinding flash, a jaw-rattling boom! and our car exploded.
I remember feeling weightless like I was being crushed, fried, and hosed down all at the same time.
I peeled my forehead off the back of the driver's seat and said, "Ow."
"Lance!" my mama shouted.
"I'm okay... ."
I tried to shake off the daze.
I wasn't dead.
The car hadn't really exploded.
We'd swerved into a ditch.
Our driver's side doors were wedged in the mud. The roof had cracked open like an eggshell and rain was pouring in. Lightning.
That was the only explanation. We'd been blasted right off the road. Next to me in the backseat was a big motionless lump.
"Hunk!" He was slumped over, blood trickling from the side of his mouth.
I shook him thinking you're my best friend and I don't want you to die!
Then he groaned "Food," and I knew there was hope.
"Percy," my mother said, "we have to ..." Her voice faltered. I looked back.
In a flash of lightning, through the mud-spattered rear windshield, I saw a figure lumbering toward us on the shoulder of the road. The sight of it made my skin crawl. It was a dark silhouette of a huge guy, like a football player. He seemed to be holding a blanket over his head. His top half was bulky and fuzzy. His upraised hands made it look like he had horns.
I swallowed hard.
"Who is-"
"Lance," my mama said, deadly serious. "Get out of the car."
My mother threw herself against the drivers-side door. It was jammed shut in the mud.
I tried mine. Stuck too. I looked up desperately at the hole in the roof. It might've been an exit, but the edges were sizzling and smoking.
"Climb out the passenger's side!" my mama told me. "Lance you have to run. Do you see that big tree?" "What?"
Another flash of lightning, and through the smoking hole in the roof I saw the tree she meant: a huge, White House Christmas tree-sized pine at the crest of the nearest hill.
"That's the property line," my mama said. "Get over that hill and you'll see a big farmhouse down in the valley. Run and don't look back. Yell for help. Don't stop until you reach the door."
"Mama, you're coming too."
Her face was pale, her eyes as sad as when she looked at the ocean.
"No!" I shouted. "You are coming with me. Help me carry Hunk."
"Food!" Grover moaned, a little louder.
The man with the blanket on his head kept coming toward us, making his grunting, snorting noises. As he got closer, I realized he couldn't be holding a blanket over his head, because of his hands-huge meaty hands were swinging at his sides. There was no blanket. Meaning the bulky, fuzzy mass that was too big to be his head ... was his head. And the points that looked like horns ...
"He doesn't want us," my mama told me. "He wants you. Besides, I can't cross the property line."
"We don't have time, Lance. Go. Please."
I got mad, then mad at my mother, at the thing with horns that was lumbering toward us slowly and deliberately like, like a bull. I climbed across Hunk and pushed the door open into the rain.
"We're going together. Come on, Mama."
"I told you-"
"Mama! I am not leaving you. Help me with Hunk."
I didn't wait for her answer. I scrambled outside, dragging Hunk from the car. He was surprisingly light, but I couldn't have carried him very far if my Mama hadn't come to my aid.
Together, we draped Grover's arms over our shoulders and started stumbling uphill through wet waist-high grass. Glancing back, I got my first clear look at the monster. He was seven feet tall, easy, his arms and legs like something from the cover of Muscle Man magazine bulging biceps and triceps and a bunch of other 'ceps, all stuffed like baseballs under vein-webbed skin. He wore no clothes except underwear, bright white Fruit of the Looms which would've looked funny, except that the top half of his body was so utterly terrifying. Coarse brown hair started at about his belly button and got thicker as it reached his shoulders. His neck was a mass of muscle and fur leading up to his enormous head, it had a snout as long as my arm, snotty nostrils with a gleaming brass ring, cruel black eyes, and horns-enormous black and white horns with points you just couldn't get from an electric sharpener. I recognized the monster, all right. He had been in one of the first stories Mr. Brunner told us. But he couldn't be real. I blinked the rain out of my eyes.
"Pasiphae's son," my mother said. "I wish I'd known how badly they want to kill you."
"But he's the Min-"
"Don't say his name," she warned. "Names have power." The pine tree was still way too far, a hundred yards uphill at least. I don’t know if you have ever tried climbing up a hill that has long grass, is slippery, carrying your friend, and trying to go as fast as you can but it’s not fun or easy.
I spared a glance behind me. The bull-man was hunched over the car, looking or should I say sniffling and nuzzling. I wasn't sure why he bothered since we were only about fifty feet away.
"Food?" Hunk moaned.
"Shhh," I told him.
"Mama, what's he doing? Doesn't he see us?"
"His sight and hearing are terrible," she said. "He goes by smell. But he'll figure out where we are soon enough."
As if on cue, the bull-man bellowed in rage. He picked up Gabe's Camaro by the torn roof, the chassis creaking and groaning. He raised the car over his head and threw it down the road. It slammed into the wet asphalt and skidded in a shower of sparks for about half a mile before coming to a stop.
The gas tank exploded.
Not a scratch, I remembered Gabe saying.
"Lance," my mom said. "When he sees us, he'll charge. Wait until the last second, then jump out of the way- directly sideways. He can't change directions very well once he's charging. Do you understand?"
"How do you know all this?"
"I've been worried about an attack for a long time. I should have expected this. I was selfish, keeping you near me." "Keeping me near you? But-"
Another bellow of rage and the bull-man started tromping uphill.
He'd smelled us.
The pine tree was only a few more yards, but the hill was getting steeper and slicker, and Hunk wasn't getting any lighter. The bull-man closed in. Another few seconds and he'd be on top of us.
My mama must've been exhausted, but she shouldered Grover. "Go, Lance! Separate! Remember what I said."
I didn't want to split up, but I had the feeling she was right-it was our only chance. I sprinted to the left, turned, and saw the creature bearing down on me. His black eyes glowed with hate.
He reeked like rotten meat. He lowered his head and charged, those razor-sharp horns aimed straight at my chest. The fear in my stomach made me want to bolt, but that wouldn't work. I could never outrun this thing. So I held my ground, and at the last moment, I jumped to the side. The bull-man stormed past like a freight train, then bellowed with frustration and turned, but not toward me this time, toward my mama, who was setting Hunk down in the grass.
We'd reached the crest of the hill. Down the other side, I could see a valley, just as my mama had said, and the lights of a farmhouse glowing yellow through the rain. But that was half a mile away. We'd never make it. Why did mama think we would.
The bull-man grunted, pawing the ground. He kept eyeing my mama, who was now retreating slowly downhill, back toward the road, trying to lead the monster away from Hunk.
"Run, Lance!" she yelled to me. "I can't go any farther. Run!"
But I just stood there, frozen in fear, my legs felt like lead, my voice decided to leave, as the monster charged her. She tried to sidestep, as she'd told me to do, but the monster had learned his lesson. His hand shot out and grabbed her by the neck as she tried to get away. He lifted her as she struggled, kicking and pummeling the air.
“MAMA!” I gut-wrenchingly screamed
She caught my eyes, managed to choke out one last word: "Go!"
Then, with an angry roar, the monster closed his fists around my mama's neck, and she dissolved before my eyes, melting into the light, a shimmering golden form as if she were a holographic projection. A blinding flash and she was simply....gone.
Anger replaced my fear. I found that my grief just fuelled my anger. Newfound strength burned in my limbs-the same rush of energy I'd gotten when Mrs. Dodds grew talons.
The bull-man bore down on Hunk, who lay helpless in the grass. The monster hunched over, snuffling my best friend as if he were about to lift Hunk up and make him dissolve too.
I couldn't allow that.
I stripped off my red rain jacket.
"Hey!" I screamed, waving the jacket, running to one side of the monster. "Hey, stupid! Ground beef!"
"Raaaarrrrr!" The monster turned toward me, shaking his meaty fists.
I had an idea, a stupid idea, but still an idea. I put my back to the big pine tree and waved my red jacket in front of the bull-man, thinking I'd jump out of the way at the last moment.
It did not work out very well.
The bull-man charged too fast, his arms out to grab me whatever direction I tried to dodge. Which was not very fair by the way.
Time slowed down.
My legs tensed. I couldn't jump sideways, so I leaped straight up, kicking off from the creature's head, using it as a springboard, turning in midair, and landing on his neck.
How did I do that? I didn't have the time to figure it out. As a moment later, the monster's head slammed into the tree and the impact nearly knocked my teeth out.
The bull-man staggered around, trying to shake me. I locked my arms around his horns to keep from being thrown. Thunder and lightning were still going strong. The rain was in my eyes. The smell of rotten meat burned my nostrils.
Meanwhile, Hunk started groaning in the grass. I wanted to yell at him to shut up, but with the way I was getting tossed around, if I opened my mouth I'd probably bite my own tongue off.
“Food” Hunk moaned
The bull-man wheeled toward him, pawed the ground again, and got ready to charge. I thought about how he had squeezed the life out of my mama, made her disappear in a flash of light, and rage filled me like high-octane fuel. I got both hands around one horn and I pulled backward with all my might. The monster tensed, gave a surprised grunt, then snap!
The bull-man screamed, it sounded both pained and furious while flinging me through the air. I landed flat on my back in the grass. My head smacked against a rock. When I sat up, my vision was blurry, but I had a horn in my hands, a ragged bone weapon the size of a knife.
The monster charged, looking positively murderous.
Without thinking, I rolled to one side and came up kneeling. As the monster barreled past, I drove the broken horn straight into his side, right up under his furry rib cage. The bull-man roared in agony. He flailed, clawing at his chest, then began to disintegrate not like my mama, in a flash of golden light, but like crumbling sand, blown away in chunks by the wind, the same way Mrs. Dodds had burst.
The monster was finally freaking gone.
The rain had stopped. The storm still rumbled, but only in the distance.
I smelled like livestock and my knees were shaking.
My head felt like it was splitting open.
I was weak and scared and trembling with grief I'd just seen my mama vanish. I wanted to lie down and cry, but there was Hunk, needing help, so I managed to haul him up and stumble down into the valley, toward the lights of the farmhouse. I was crying, calling for my mama, but I held on to Hunk, I wasn't going to let him go.
The last thing I remember is collapsing on a wooden porch, looking up at a ceiling fan circling above me with moths flying around a yellow light, and the stern faces of a familiar looking bearded man and a small girl. They both looked down at me, and the girl said, "He's the one. He must be."
"Quiet, Katie dear," the man said. "He's still conscious. Bring him inside."

Chapter Text

I had strange dreams full of barnyard animals. Most of them wanted to kill me. The other ones wanted to be feed.
I must have woken up multiple times, but what I could hear and see made no sense, so I decided to continue to get my beauty sleep. I remember lying in a soft bed, being spoon-fed something that tasted like buttered popcorn, only it was pudding. The small girl with long coppery hair feeds me although it seemed like she wanted information more than she wanted to help me.
When she saw my eyes open, she whispered, "What will happen at the summer solstice?" In a small voice that sounded very young.
I almost felt like an older brother being taken care of by his little sister.
I managed to croak, "What?” in my softest voice I could manage
She looked around as if afraid someone would overhear. Which looked remarkably like a little kid than anything "What's going on? What was stolen? We've only got a few weeks!"
“I’m sorry pequeño,” I mumbled, "I don't..." (pequeño means little one)
Somebody knocked on the door, and the girl quickly filled my mouth with pudding. Making it so I could not finish my reply.
The next time I woke up, the girl was gone.
A husky blond dude, like a surfer who took steroids, stood in the corner of the bedroom keeping watch over me. He had blue eyes, at least a dozen of them, on his cheeks, his forehead, the backs of his hands.
He looked at me and mouthed ‘go back to sleep’.

When I finally came around for good, there was nothing weird about my surroundings, except that they were nicer than I was used to. I was sitting in a rocking chair on a huge porch, gazing across a meadow at green hills in the distance. The breeze smelled like strawberries. There was a blanket over my legs, a pillow behind my neck. All that was great, but my mouth felt like someone had been using sandpaper on it for hours on end and then bees thought it would be fun to sting it. My tongue was dry and nasty and every one of my teeth hurt.
On the table next to me was a tall drink. It looked like iced apple juice, with a green straw and a paper parasol stuck through one of those crappy cherries.
My hand was so weak I almost dropped the glass once I got my fingers around it.
"Careful," a familiar voice said.
Hunk was leaning against the porch railing, looking like he hadn't slept in a week. Under one arm, he cradled a shoe box. He was wearing blue jeans, Converse hi-tops and a bright orange T-shirt that said CAMP HALF-BLOOD. Just plain old Hunk, no armor no monsters.
So maybe I'd had a nightmare. Maybe my mama was okay. We were still on vacation, and we'd stopped here at this big house for some reason. And ...
"You saved my life," Hunk said. "I... well, the least I could do ... I went back to the hill. I thought you might want this."
Carefully, he placed the shoebox in my lap. Inside was a black-and-white bull's horn, the base jagged from being broken off, the tip splattered with dried blood.
It hadn't been a nightmare.
"The Minotaur," I said confusion and hatred dripping from my words
"Urn, Lance, it isn't a good idea-"
"That's what they call him in the Greek myths, isn't it?" I demanded. "The Minotaur. Half man, half bull."
I wasn’t really in the mood for the whole ‘names have power’ bullshit at the moment even though my words seemed to scare Hunk.
Hunk shifted uncomfortably."You've been out for two days. How much do you remember?"
Hunk obviously not very comfortable with me saying its name but didn't have the heart or courage to tell me it’s not a good idea again.
"My mama. Is she really …” I start not feeling it in me to finish.
He looked down with guiltily.
I stared across the meadow. There were groves of trees, a winding stream, acres of strawberries spread out under the blue sky. The valley was surrounded by rolling hills, and the tallest one, directly in front of us, was the one with the huge pine tree on top. Even that looked beautiful in the sunlight.
My mama was gone. The whole world should be black and cold. Nothing should look beautiful.
"I'm sorry," Hunk sniffled. "I'm a failure. I'm-I'm the worst protector in the world."
He stomped hard and lost his footing a little. A little bronze creation fell out of his pocket. It looked like a 3D triangle robot but made out of bronze and a green gem.
“Oh, Styx! I can't break that” Hunk said hastily looking it over.
Thunder rolled through the sky
It looked odd but then it got scary as it whirred to life and...floated
“Hey buddy” Hunk said to the little robot “Stay for a second”
Hunk disappeared and come back with the under armor outfit he was wearing before.
“There we go,” Hunk said as he took a screwdriver out of the armor and fixed up the little ‘guy’
Hunk has armor. I was ready to bet that if I gave him a sword or bow he would be able to use it. I was too miserable to notice that the robot seemed to be speaking in code or even that minotaurs existed. All that meant was my mom really had been squeezed into nothingness, dissolved into yellow light.
I was alone. An orphan. I would have to live with ... Smelly Gabe? No. That would never happen. I would live on the streets first or try and make it on my own. I'd do something.
Hunk was still sniffling. The poor kid looked as if he expected to be hit. He plucked the robot out of the air, stroked him, and then turned him off. As he put the robot away he seemed to be flinching whenever the porch moved.
"It wasn't your fault," I said comfortably
"Yes, it was. I was supposed to protect you."
"Did my mama ask you to protect me?"
"No. But that's my job. I'm a keeper. At least... I was."
"But why ..." I suddenly felt dizzy, my vision swimming. "Don't strain yourself," Hunk said. "Here."
He helped me hold my glass and put the straw to my lips.
I recoiled at the taste because I was expecting apple juice. It wasn't that at all. It was chocolate-chip cookies. Liquid cookies. And not just any cookies my mom's homemade blue chocolate-chip cookies, buttery and hot, with the chips still melting. Drinking it, my whole body felt warm and good, full of energy. My grief didn't go away, but I felt as if my mama had just brushed her hand against my cheek, given me a cookie the way she used to when I was small, and told me everything was going to be okay.
Before I knew it, I'd drained the glass. I stared into it, sure I'd just had a warm drink, but the ice cubes hadn't even melted. I wished I could have a thousand glasses of it, whatever it was.
"Was it good?" Hunk asked.
I nodded.
"What did it taste like?" He sounded so wistful, I felt guilty. "Sorry," I said. "I should've let you taste."
His eyes got wide with sudden realization. "No! That's not what I meant. I just... wondered."
"Chocolate-chip cookies," I said. "My mama's. Homemade. Right out of the oven"
He sighed. "And how do you feel?"
"Like I could throw Nancy Bobofit all the way to Jersey."
"That's good," he said chuckling. "That's good. I don't think you could risk drinking any more of that stuff"
"What do you mean? It’s so good"
He took the empty glass from me gingerly, as if it were explosive, and placed it back on the table. "Come on. Chiron and Mr. D are waiting."
The porch wrapped all the way around the farmhouse.
It was a surprisingly nice farmhouse for being in the middle of nowhere.
My legs felt wobbly, trying to walk that far. Hunk offered to carry the Minotaur horn, but I held on to it. I'd paid for that souvenir the hard way. I wasn't going to let it go. So instead he let me lean on him for support.
As we came around the opposite end of the house, I leaned over holding on to my knees and caught my breath.
We must've been on the north shore of Long Island because on this side of the house, the valley marched all the way up to the water, which glittered about a mile in the distance. Between here and there, I simply couldn't process everything I was seeing. The landscape was dotted with buildings that looked like ancient Greek architecture, an open-air pavilion, an amphitheater, a circular arena except that they all looked brand new, their white marble columns sparkling in the sun. It was incredibly impressive to see. In a nearby sandpit, about a dozen high school-age kids and….satyrs played volleyball. Canoes glided across a small lake. Kids in bright orange T-shirts like Hunk's were chasing each other around a cluster of cabins nestled in the woods. Some shot targets at an archery range. Others rode horses down a wooded trail, and, unless I was hallucinating, some of their horses had wings.
Down at the end of the porch, two men sat across from each other at a card table. The small long-haired girl who had fed me popcorn-flavored pudding was leaning on the porch rail next to them. She looked bored and calculating.
The man facing me was small, but porky. He had a red nose, big watery eyes, and curly hair so black it was almost purple. He looked like those paintings of baby angels cherubs. He looked like a cherub who'd quit and grew up to middle-aged in a trailer park. He wore a tiger pattern Hawaiian shirt, and he would've fit right in at one of Gabe's poker parties, except I got the feeling this guy could've out-gambled even my step-father.
"That's Mr. D," Hunk murmured to me. "He's the camp director. Be polite. You don’t wanna get him mad. The girl, that's Katie Holt. She's just a camper, but she's been here longer than pretty much anyone. And you already know Chiron...."
He pointed at the guy whose back was to me.
At first, I realized he was sitting in a wheelchair. Then I recognized the tweed jacket, the thinning brown hair, the scraggly beard.
"Mr. Brunner!" I cried.
The Latin teacher turned and smiled at me. His eyes had that mischievous glint they sometimes got in class when he pulled a pop quiz and had all the answers be pop.
"Ah, good, Lance," he said. "Now we have four for pinochle."
He offered me a chair to the right of Mr. D, who looked at me with bloodshot eyes and heaved a great sigh. "Oh, I suppose I must say it. Welcome to Camp Half-Blood. There. Now, don't expect me to be glad to see you."
He looked like an exasperated chipmunk. I wondered how he had come to work with kids or… all.
"Uh, thanks." I scooted a little farther away from him because, if there was one thing I had learned from living with Gabe, it was how to tell when an adult has been hitting the happy juice. If Mr. D was a stranger to alcohol, I was the perfect child.
"Katie, dear?" Mr. Brunner called to the copper-haired girl.
She came forward and Mr. Brunner introduced us. "This young lady helped you get better, Lance. Katie, my dear, why don't you go check on Lance's bunk? We'll be putting him in cabin eleven for now."
Katie said, "Sure, Chiron."
She looked around my age probably a year or two younger. She was a couple of inches shorter and had a runner's build. She had eyes that looked similar to her hair. Her eyes looked as though sunshine was through a glass of whiskey. They had the intelligence to them while also managing to be calculating, that made her look like she knew the secrets to the world and knew how to beat the shit out of you.
Note to self, do not piss this girl off.
She glanced at the minotaur horn in my hands, then back at me. I imagined she was going to say, ‘You killed a minotaur!’ or ‘Wow, you are so cool!’ or something along those lines.
Instead, she said, "You snore really loud"
Then she sprinted off down the lawn, her copper hair flying behind her. Mr. Brunner looked at her run with a look I associated with guardians and caretakers.
"So," I said, anxious to change the subject. "You, uh, work here, Mr. Brunner?"
I was glad to see my old Latin teacher but I was also incredibly confused by him being here.
"Not Mr. Brunner," the coincidentally not Mr. Brunner said. "I'm afraid that was a pseudonym. You may call me Chiron."
"Okay." Totally confused, I looked at the director. "And Mr. D ... does that stand for something?"
Mr. D stopped shuffling the cards. He looked at me like I'd just failed a test about myself. "Young man, names are powerful things. You don't just go around using them for no reason."
"Oh. Right. Sorry."
Now even more confused. What could a name do?
"I must say, Lance," Brunner or I guess Chiron broke in, "I'm glad to see you alive. It's been a long time since I've made a house call to a potential camper. I'd hate to think I've wasted my time."
"House call?"
"My year at Yancy Academy, to instruct you. We have satyrs at most schools, of course, keeping a lookout. But Hunk alerted me as soon as he met you. He could tell you were something special, so I decided to come upstate. I convinced the other Latin teacher to ... um...ah, take a leave of absence."
I tried to recall the beginning of the school year. It seemed like so long ago, but I did have a fuzzy, barely their memory of there being another Latin teacher my first week at Yancy. Then, without explanation, she had disappeared and Mr. Brunner had taken the class.
"You came to Yancy just to teach me?" I asked sounding doubtful even to my own ears.
Chiron nodded. "Honestly, I wasn't sure about you at first. We contacted your mother, let her know we
were keeping an eye on you in case you were ready for Camp Half-Blood. But you were still so ignorant to our world. Nevertheless, you made it here alive, and that's always the first test.”
"Hunk," Mr. D grunted impatiently, "are you playing or not?"
"Yes, sir!" Hunk trembled as he took the fourth chair, though I didn't know why he should be so afraid of a pudgy little man in a tiger-print Hawaiian shirt.
"You do know how to play pinochle?" Mr. D eyed me suspiciously.
“No," I said.
“No, sir,” He said
“Sir” I was liking this camp director less and less
"Well," he told me, "it is, along with gladiator fighting and Pac-Man, one of the greatest games ever invented by humans. I would expect all civilized young men to know the rules."
"I'm sure the boy can learn," Chiron said.
"Please," I said, "what is this place? What am I doing here? Mr. Brun-Chiron-why would you go to Yancy Academy just to teach me? What the hell is going on?"
Mr. D snorted. "I asked the same question."
The camp director dealt with the cards. Hunk flinched every time one landed in his pile.
Chiron smiled at me sympathetically, the way he used to in Latin class, as if to let me know that no matter what my average was, I was his star student. He expected me to have the right answer.
"Lance," he said. "Did your mother tell you nothing?”
"Mama said ..." I remembered the same sad eyes she always had looking out over the sea. "She told me she was afraid to send me here, even though my father had wanted her to. She said that once I was here, I probably couldn't leave. She wanted to keep me close to her."
"Typical," Mr. D scoffed. "That's how they usually get killed. Young man, are you bidding or not?”
"What?" I asked.
He explained, impatiently and clearly annoyed, how you bid in pinochle, and so I did.
"I'm afraid there's too much to tell," Chiron said. "I'm afraid our usual orientation film won't be enough."
"Orientation film?" I asked.
"No," Chiron decided to shake his head. "Well, Lance. You know"-he pointed to the horn in the shoe box-"that you have killed the Minotaur. No small feat, either, boy v. What you may not know is that great powers are at work in your life. Gods-the forces you call the Greek gods are very much alive."
I stared at the others around the table.
I waited for somebody to yell, ‘Not!’ But all I got was Mr. D yelling, "Oh, a royal marriage. Trick! Trick!" He cackled as he tallied up his points.
"Wait," I told Chiron I chuckled in disbelief. "You're telling me there's such a thing as God."
"Well, now," Chiron said. "God-capital G, God. That's a different matter altogether. We shan't deal with the metaphysical."
"Metaphysical? But you were just talking about-"
"Ah, gods, plural, as in, great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus. That's a smaller matter."
"Quite right. The gods we discussed in Latin class."
"Zeus," I said. "Hera. Apollo. You mean them."
And there it was again distant thunder on a cloudless day. What the hell is up with the weather?
"Young man," said Mr. D nervously, "I would really be less casual about throwing those names around if I were you.”
"But they're stories," I said. "They're myths, to explain lightning and the seasons and stuff. They're what people believed before there was science."
"Science!" Mr. D scoffed. "And tell me, Lance Emeterio McClain," I flinched when he said my full name, which I never told anybody "what will people think of your 'science' two thousand years from now?" Mr. D continued. "Hmm? They will call it primitive mumbo jumbo. That's what. Oh, I love mortals they have absolutely no sense of perspective. They think they've come so far. And have they, Chiron? Look at this boy and tell me."
I wasn't liking Mr. D much, but there was something about the way he called me mortal, as if... he wasn't. It put a lump in my throat, as it suggests why Hunk was looking at his cards, drinking a coke, while staying very quiet and minding his own business.
"Lance," Chiron said, "you may choose to believe or not, but the fact is that immortal means immortal. Can you imagine that for a moment, never dying? Never fading? Existing, just as you are, for all time?"
I was about to answer, off the top of my head, that it sounded like a pretty good deal. Then I took into account Chiron’s sad look and tone of voice.
"You mean, whether people believed in you or not," I said
"Exactly," Chiron agreed. "If you were a god, how would you like being called a myth, an old story to explain lightning? What if I told you, Lance McClain, that someday people would call you a myth, just created to explain how little boys can get over losing their mothers?"
My heart pounded. He was trying to make me angry for some reason, but I wasn't going to let him.
I said, "I wouldn't like it. But I don't believe in gods."
"Oh, you'd better," Mr. D murmured. "Before one of them incinerates you."
Hunk said, "P-please, sir. He's just lost his mother. He's in shock."
"A lucky thing, too," Mr. D grumbled, playing a card. "Bad enough I'm confined to this miserable job, working with boys who don't even believe.”
He waved his hand and a goblet appeared on the table, as if the sunlight had bent, momentarily, and woven the air into glass. The goblet filled itself with red wine.
My jaw dropped, but Chiron hardly looked up.
"Mr. D," he warned, "your restrictions."
Mr. D looked at the wine and feigned surprise.
"Dear me." He looked at the sky and yelled, "Old habits! Sorry!"
More random ominous thunder.
Mr. D waved his hand again, and the wineglass changed into a fresh can of Diet Coke. He sighed unhappily, popped the top of the soda, and went back to his card game. He looked like, well, a child being punished.
Chiron winked at me. "Mr. D offended his father a while back, took a fancy to a wood nymph who had been declared off-limits."
"A wood nymph," I repeated, still staring at the Diet Coke can like it was from Mars
"Yes," Mr. D confessed. "Father loves to punish me. The first time, Prohibition. Horrible! Absolutely horrid ten years! The second time, well, she really was pretty, and I couldn't stay away the second time, he sent me here. Half-Blood Hill. Summer camp for brats like you. 'Be a better influence,' he told me. 'Work with youths rather than tearing them down.' Ha. Absolutely unfair."
Definitely sounded like a little kid, a six-year-old, a pouting child.
"And ..." I stammered, "your father is ..."
I hoped he would say a normal name like Steve or Bill or Carlos.
"Di immortales, Chiron," Mr. D said. "I thought you taught this boy the basics. My father is Zeus, of course."
Ah, follar why me?
I ran through D names from Greek mythology. Wine. The skin of a tiger. I tried to figure out who this guy is.
"You're Dionysus," I said in horrified realization. "The god of wine."
Great, I was dealing with a man or I guess god baby.
Mr. D rolled his eyes. "What do they say, these days, Hunk? Do the children say, 'Well, duh!'?"
"Y-yes, Mr. D."
"Then, well, duh! Percy Jackson. Did you think I was Aphrodite, perhaps?"
"You're a god."
"Yes, child."
"A god. You."
He turned to look at me straight on, and I saw a kind of purplish fire in his eyes, a hint that this whiny, plump little man was only showing me the tiniest bit of his true nature. I saw visions of grape vines choking unbelievers to death, drunken warriors insane with battle lust, sailors screaming as their hands turned to flippers, their faces elongating into dolphin snouts.
I remembered something Chiron had taught, that Dionysus was not only the god of wine but also associated with insanity and ritual madness.
He may be whiny but I knew that if I pushed him, Mr. D would show me worse things. He would plant a disease in my brain that would leave me wearing a strait-jacket in a rubber room for the rest of my life.
"Would you like to test me, child?" he said quietly.
"No. No, sir."
The fire died a little. He turned back to his card game. "I believe I win."
"Not quite, Mr. D," Chiron said with a sly smile. He set down a straight, tallied the points, and said, "The game goes to me."
I thought Mr. D was going to vaporize Chiron right out of his wheelchair, but he just sighed through his nose, as if he were used to being beaten by the Latin teacher. He got up, and Hunk did, too.
"I'm tired," Mr. D said. "I believe I'll take a nap before the sing-along tonight. But first, Hunk, we need to talk, again, about your less than perfect performance on this assignment."
Hunk's face beaded with sweat. "Y-yes, sir."
Mr. D turned to me. "Cabin eleven, Lance Emeterio McClain. And mind your manners." He swept into the farmhouse, Hunk following miserably.
"Will Hunk be okay?" I asked Chiron after watching them leave.
Chiron nodded, though he looked a bit troubled. "Old Dionysus isn't really mad. He just hates his job. He's been ... ah, grounded, I guess you would say, and he can't stand waiting another century before he's allowed to go back to Olympus."
"Mount Olympus," I said. "You're telling me there really is a palace there?"
"Well now, there's Mount Olympus in Greece. And then there's the home of the gods, the convergence point of their powers, which did indeed used to be on Mount Olympus. It's still called Mount Olympus, out of respect to the old ways, but the palace moves, Lance, just as the gods do."
"You mean the Greek gods are here? Like ... in America?" "Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West."
"The what now?"
"Come now, Lance. What you call 'Western civilization.' Do you think it's just an abstract concept? No, it's a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn't possibly fade, not unless all of the Western civilization was obliterated. The fire started in Greece. Then, as you well know-or as I hope you know, since you passed my course-the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. Oh, different names, perhaps-Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on-but the same forces, the same gods."
"And then they died."
"Died? No. Did the West die? The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. They spent several centuries in England. All you need to do is look at the architecture. People do not forget the gods. Every place they've ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings. And yes, Lance, of course, they are now in your United States. Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus. Look at the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington. I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not prominently displayed in multiple places. Like it or not and believe me, plenty of people weren't very fond of Rome, either America is now the heart of the flame. It is the great power of the West. And so Olympus is here. And we are here."
It was all too much, especially the fact that I seemed to be included in Chiron's we as if I were part of some giant weird club.
"Who are you, Chiron? Who-who am I?"
Chiron smiled. He shifted his weight as if he were going to get up out of his wheelchair, but I knew that was impossible. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
"Who are you?" he pondered. "Well, that's the question we all want to be answered, isn't it? But for now, we should get you a bunk in cabin eleven. There will be new friends to meet. And plenty of time for lessons tomorrow. Besides, there will be s' mores at the campfire tonight, and I simply adore chocolate."
And then he did rise from his wheelchair. But there was something odd about the way he did it. His blanket fell away from his legs, but the legs didn't move. His waist kept getting longer, rising above his belt. At first, I thought he was wearing very long, white velvet underwear, but as he kept rising out of the chair, taller than any man, I realized that the velvet underwear wasn't underwear; it was the front of an animal, muscle, and sinew under coarse white fur. And the wheelchair wasn't a chair. It was some kind of container, an enormous box on wheels, and it must've been magic because there's no way it could've held all of him. A leg came out, long and knobby-kneed, with a huge polished hoof. Then another front leg, then hindquarters, and then the box was empty, nothing but a metal shell with a couple of fake human legs attached.
I stared at the horse who had just sprung from the wheelchair: a huge white stallion. But where its neck should be was the upper body of my Latin teacher, smoothly grafted to the horse's trunk.
"What a relief," the centaur said. "I'd been cooped up in there so long, my fetlocks had fallen asleep. Now, come, Lance McClain. Let's meet the other campers."

Chapter Text

Once I got over the fact that my Latin teacher was a horse, we had a nice tour, though I was careful not to walk behind him. I have known people that have done pooper-scooper patrol in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade a few times, and, I'm sorry, I did not trust Chiron's back end the way I trusted his front.
We passed the volleyball pit. Several of the campers nudged each other. One pointed to the minotaur horn I was carrying. Another said, "That's him."
Most of the campers were older than me. They had satyr friends that were bigger than Hunk, all of them trotting around in orange CAMP HALF-BLOOD T-shirts, with nothing else to cover their bare shaggy hindquarters. I wasn't normally shy, but the way they stared at me made me uncomfortable. I felt like they were expecting me to do a flip or something.
I looked back at the farmhouse. It was a lot bigger than I'd realized-four stories tall, sky blue with white trim, like an upscale seaside resort. I was checking out the brass eagle weathervane on top when something caught my eye, a shadow in the uppermost window of the attic gable. Something had moved the curtain, just for a second, and I got the distinct impression I was being watched.
"What's up there?" I asked Chiron.
He looked where I was pointing, and his smile faded. "Just the attic."
"Somebody lives there?"
"No," he said with finality. "Not a single living thing."
I believed him but also something had to of moved the curtain.
"Come along, Lance," Chiron said, his lighthearted tone now somewhat forced. "Lots to see."
We walked through the strawberry fields, where campers were picking bushels of berries while a satyr played a tune on a reed pipe.
Chiron told me the camp grew a nice crop for export to New York restaurants and Mount Olympus. "It pays our expenses," he explained. "And the strawberries take almost no effort."
He said Mr. D had this effect on fruit-bearing plants: they just went crazy when he was around. It worked best with wine grapes, but Mr. D was restricted from growing those, so they grew strawberries instead.
I watched the satyr playing his pipe. His music was causing lines of bugs to leave the strawberry patch in every direction, like refugees fleeing a fire. I wondered if Hunk was still inside the farmhouse, getting chewed out by Mr. D.
"Hunk won't get in too much trouble, will he?" I asked Chiron.
"I mean ... he was a good protector. Really." Chiron sighed. He shed his tweed jacket and draped it over his horses back like a saddle. "Hunk has big dreams, Lance. Perhaps bigger than are reasonable. To reach his goal, he must first demonstrate great courage by succeeding as a keeper, finding a new camper and bringing him safely to Half-Blood Hill."
"But he did that!"
"I might agree with you," Chiron said. "But it is not my place to judge. Dionysus and the Council of Cloven Elders must decide. I'm afraid they might not see this assignment as a success. After all, Hunk lost you in New York. Then there's the unfortunate ... ah ... fate of your mother. And the fact that Hunk was unconscious when you dragged him over the property line. The council might question whether this shows any courage on Hunk's part."
wanted to protest. None of what happened was Hunk's fault. I also felt really, really guilty. If I hadn't given Hunk the slip at the bus station, he might not have gotten in trouble.
"He'll get a second chance, won't he?"
Chiron winced. "I'm afraid that was Hunk's second chance, Lance. The council was not anxious to give him another, either, after what happened the first time, six years ago. Olympus knows, I advised him to wait longer before trying again.
"What happened the first time? Was it really so bad?"
Chiron looked away quickly. "Let's move along, shall we?"
But I wasn't quite ready to let the subject drop. Something had occurred to me when Chiron talked about my mama's fate, as if he were intentionally avoiding the word death. The beginnings of an idea sparking a tiny, hopeful fire in my mind.
"Chiron," I said.
"If the gods and Olympus and all that are real ..."
"Yes, child?"
"Does that mean the Underworld is real, too?"
Chiron's expression darkened.
"Yes, child." He paused, as if choosing his words carefully. "There is a place where spirits go after death. But for now ... until we know more ... I would urge you to put that out of your mind."
"What do you mean, 'until we know more'?"
"Come, Lance. Let's see the woods."
As we got closer, I realized how huge the forest was. It took up at least a quarter of the valley, with trees so tall and thick, you could imagine nobody had been there since the Native Americans.
Chiron said, "The woods are stocked, if you care to try your luck, but go armed."
"Stocked with what?" I asked.
"Armed with what?"
"You'll see. Capture the flag is Friday night. Do you have your own sword and shield?"
"My own-?"
"No," Chiron said. "I don't suppose you do. I think a size five will do. I'll visit the armory later."
I wanted to ask what kind of summer camp had an armory, but there was too much else to think about, so the tour continued. We saw the archery range, the canoeing lake, the stables (which Chiron didn't seem to like very much), the javelin range, the sing-along amphitheater, and the arena where Chiron said they held sword and spear fights.
"Sword and spear fights?" I asked.
"Cabin challenges and all that," he explained. "Not lethal. Usually. Oh, yes, and there's the mess hall."
Chiron pointed to an outdoor pavilion framed in white Grecian columns on a hill overlooking the sea.
There were a dozen stone picnic tables. No roof. No walls.
"What do you do when it rains?" I asked.
Chiron looked at me as if I'd gone a little weird. "We still have to eat, don't we?"
I decided to drop the subject.
Finally, he showed me the cabins. There were twelve of them, nestled in the woods by the lake. They
were arranged in a U, with two at the base and five in a row on either side. And they were without
doubt the most bizarre collection of buildings I'd ever seen.
Except for the fact that each had a large brass number above the door (odds on the left side, evens on the right), they looked absolutely nothing alike. Number nine had smokestacks, like a tiny factory. Number four had tomato vines on the walls and a roof made out of real grass. Seven seemed to be made of solid gold, which gleamed in the sunlight so brightly it was almost impossible to look at. They all faced a commons area about the size of a soccer field, dot-ted with Greek statues, fountains, flower beds, and a couple of basketball hoops (which were more my speed).
In the center of the field was a huge stone-lined firepit. Even though it was a warm afternoon, the hearth smol-dered. A girl about nine years old was tending the flames, poking the coals with a stick.
The pair of cabins at the head of the field, numbers one and two, looked like his-and-hers mausoleums, big white marble boxes with heavy columns in front. Cabin one was the biggest and bulkiest of the twelve. Its polished bronze doors shimmered like a hologram, so that from different angles lightning bolts seemed to streak across them. Cabin two was more graceful somehow, with slimmer columns garlanded with pomegranates and flowers. The walls were carved with images of peacocks.
"Zeus and Hera?" I guessed.
"Correct," Chiron said.
"Their cabins look empty."
"Several of the cabins are. That's true. No one ever stays in one or two."
Okay. So each cabin had a different god, like a mascot. Twelve cabins for the twelve Olympians. But why would some be empty?
I stopped in front of the first cabin on the left, cabin three.
It wasn't high and mighty like cabin one, but long and low and solid. The outer walls were of rough gray stone studded with pieces of seashells and coral, as if the slabs had been hewn straight from the bottom of the ocean floor. I peeked inside the open doorway and Chiron said, "Oh, I wouldn't do that!"
Before he could pull me back, I caught the salty scent of the interior, like the wind on the shore at Montauk. The interior walls glowed like abalone. There were six empty bunk beds with silk sheets turned down. But there was no sign anyone had ever slept there. The place felt so sad and lonely, I was glad when Chiron put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Come along, Lance."
Most of the other cabins were crowded with campers.
Number five was bright red-a real nasty paint job, as if the color had been splashed on with buckets and fists. The roof was lined with barbed wire. A stuffed wild boar's head hung over the doorway, and its eyes seemed to follow me. Inside I could see a bunch of mean-looking kids, both girls and boys, arm wrestling and arguing with each other while rock music blared. The loudest was a boy maybe 13 or 14. He was a little taller than me, built, and smug. He zeroed me out and gave me a sneer that managed to be evil and smug at the same time.
I kept walking, trying my best to avoid Chiron’s hooves. “We haven’t seen any other centaurs” I observed
“No,” added Chiron sadly “my brethren are a wild and barbaric folk, I’m afraid. You might see them in the wilderness, or at major sporting events. But not here, never here.”
He looked sad and lonely as he talked about how you will never meet any other centaurs here. I wonder if he was sad because they are ‘barbaric and wild’ or because he is lonely being the only one of his species in camp.
“You said your name was Chiron. Are you actually ...”
He smiled down at me “The Chiron from the stories? Trainer of Hercules and all that? Yes, Lance I am.”
“But, shouldn’t you be dead?”
Chiron paused, as if the question intrigued him “Honestly I don’t know about should be. Truth is, I can’t be dead. You see, eons ago the gods granted my wish. I could continue the work I loved. I could be a teacher of heroes as long as humanity needed me. I gained much from that wish ... and I gave up much. But I'm still here, so I can only assume I'm still needed.”
I thought about being a teacher for three thousand years. It wouldn’t have made my ‘What to wish for from gods’ list.
“Doesn’t it ever get boring?”
“No, no” he said “Horribly depressing at times, but never boring.”
“Why depressing?”
Chiron seemed to turn hard of hearing again.
“Oh look,” he said “Katie is waiting for us.”
The short copper haired girl I’d met at the Big House was reading a book in front of the last cabin on the left, number eleven.
When we reached her, she looked me over critically, like she was still thinking about how much I snored.
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 in English. The letters looked like Greek to me. I mean, actually Greek. There were pictures of temples and statues and different types of columns, like those in an architecture book.
“Katie,” Chiron said, “I have masters’ archery class at noon. Would you help out Lance from here?”
“Yes, Sir”
“Cabin eleven,” Chiron said gesturing to the doorway, “Make yourself at home.”
Out of all the cabins, eleven looked the most like a reg-ular 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 the floor. Even with the amount of people and room in the cabin they still had an empty bunk which seemed ridiculous to me. 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 “Best of luck to you, Lance. 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?” Katie 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.
Katie announced, "Lance McClain, meet cabin eleven.”
"Regular or undetermined?" somebody asked.
I didn't know what to say, but Katie 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,Lance. 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-chopped dark brown hair and a friendly smile. He wore an orange tank top, cutoffs, sandals, and a leather necklace with five multicolored clay beads. The only thing unsettling about his appearance was a thick light scar that ran from right beneath his right eye to his jaw, like an old knife slash.
“This is Curtis,” Katie said, and her voice sounded softer somehow like she was talking to a brother and not a friend. “He’s your counselor for now.”
"You're undetermined," Curtis 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," Curtis said. "Until you're determined."
"How long will that take?"
The campers all laughed
"Come on," Katie told me. "I'll show you the volleyball court."
"I've already seen it."
"Come on." She grabbed my wrist and dragged me outside. I could hear the kids of cabin eleven laughing behind me.
When we were a few feet away, Katie said, “McClain, you have to do better than that.”
She rolled her eyes and mumbled under her breath, "I can't believe I thought you were the one."
"What's your problem?" I was getting angry now. "All I know is, I kill some bull guy-"
"Don't talk like that!" Katie 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 ..."
"Then there's only one."
"And he died, like, a gajillion years ago, right? Theseus killed him in the labyrinth. So ..." "Monsters don't die, Lance. 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?"
Katie 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 Katie turned pale or I guess paler. "You don't just choose a
cabin, Lance. It depends on who your parents are. Or ... your parent."
She stared at me, waiting for me to get it.
"My mom is Aymee McClain," I said. "She works at the candy store in Grand Central Station. At least, she used to."
"I'm sorry about your mom, Lance. But that's not what I mean. I'm talking about your other parent. Your dad."
"He's dead. I never knew him."
Annabeth sighed. Clearly, she'd had this conversation before with other kids. "Your father's not dead, Lance.”
"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?" She raised an eyebrow. "I bet you moved around from school to school. I bet you were kicked out of a lot of them."
"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 battle-field reflexes. In a real fight, they'd keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that's because you see too much, Lance, 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 boy from the ugly red cabin was sauntering toward us. He had three other boys behind him, all big and mean looking, all wearing camo jackets.
"James, " Annabeth sighed. "Why don't you go polish your spear or something?"
"Sure, little Princess," the big boy said. "So I can run you through with it Friday night."
''Erre es korakas!" Katie 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," James said, but bis eye twitched. Perhaps he wasn't sure he could follow through on the threat. He turned toward me. "Who's this little runt?"
“Lance McClain,” Katie said, “meet James Griffin, Son of Ares.”
I blinked “ Like...the war god?”
James sneered “You have a problem with that?”
“No” I said recovering my whit unfortunately though not fast enough as my voice shakes some “It explains the bad smell.”
James growled. “We got an initiation ceremony for newbies, Rance.”

"Whatever. Come on, I'll show you."
"James-" Katie tried to say.
"Stay out of it, Brainy."
Katie looked pained, but she did stay out of it, and I didn't really want her help. I was the new kid. I had to earn my own rep.
I handed Katie my minotaur horn and got ready to fight, but before I knew it, James 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 large boy James had hands like iron. He dragged me into the boys’ 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 James ripping my hair out that if this place belonged to the gods, they should've been able to afford classier johns.
Jame’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," James said as he pushed me toward one of the toilets. "Yeah, right. Minotaur probably fell over laughing, he was so stupid looking."
His friends snickered.
Katie stood in the corner, watching through her fingers.

James 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. Jame’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 James screaming behind me.
I turned just as water blasted out of the toilet again, hitting James straight in the face so hard it pushed him down onto his butt. The water stayed on him like the spray from a fire hose, pushing him backward into a shower stall.
He struggled, gasping, and his friends started coming toward him. 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 kids 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. Katie hadn't been spared. She was dripping wet, but she hadn't been pushed out the door. She 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.
Katie said, "How did you ..."
"I don't know."
We walked to the door. Outside, James and his friends were sprawled in the mud, and a bunch of other campers had gathered around to gawk. James’s hair was flattened across his face. His camouflage jacket was sopping and he smelled like sewage. He 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, James? Close your mouth."
His friends had to hold him back. They dragged him toward cabin five, while the other campers made way to avoid his flailing feet.
Katie 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 “I totally want you on my team for capture the flag.”

Chapter Text

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 Katie, who was still pretty much dripping wet.
She 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," Katie said flatly. "Dinner's at seven-thirty. Just follow your cabin to the mess hall."
“Katie I’m sorry about the toliets”
“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," Katie said.
"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 shim-mering 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," Katie warned. "Naiads are terrible flirts."
"Naiads," I repeated, feeling completely overwhelmed. "That's it. I want to go home now."
Katie rolled her eyes. "Don't you get it, Lance? 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."
Katie nodded impatiently. "Your father isn't dead, Lance. 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," Katie 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."
Katie straightened. "Athena. Goddess of wisdom and battle."
Okay, I thought. Why not?
"And my dad?"
"Undetermined," Katie said, "like I told you before. Nobody knows."
"Except my mother. She knew."
"Maybe not, Lance. Gods don't always reveal their iden-tities."
"My dad would have. He loved her."
Katie 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?"
Katie 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, Lance. 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," Katie 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?"
Katie shook her head. "Not unless they're inten-tionally 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 a year-rounder?"
Katie nodded. From under the collar of her T-shirt she pulled a leather necklace with five clay beads of differ-ent colors. It was just like Curtis’s, except Katie’s also had a big gold ring strung on it, like a college ring.
"I've been here since I was 5," she 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."
"Why did you come so young?"
She twisted the ring around on her necklace “None of your business” she snapped at me
"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 ..."
"You were granted a quest. But that hardly ever hap-pens. 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-"
"Yeah. You asked me something about the summer solstice."
Katie’s shoulders tensed. "So you do know something?"
"Well... no. Back at my old school, I overheard Hunk and Chiron talking about it. Hunk 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, Hunk, 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 like Curtis and James 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," Katie 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," Katie muttered to her-self. "I'm not too young. If they would just tell me the problem ..."
I could smell barbecue smoke coming from somewhere nearby. Katie must've heard my stomach growl. She told me to go on, she'd catch me 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, Curtis, came over. He had the Hermes family resemblance, too. It was marred by that scar on his right cheek, but his smile was intact.
"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." Curtis 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 Curtis seemed like a pretty easy going 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, mer-chants, 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 Curtis didn't mean to call me a nobody. He just had a lot on his mind.
"You ever meet your dad?" I asked.

I waited, thinking that if he wanted to tell me, he'd tell me. Apparently, he didn't. I wondered if the story had any-thing to do with how he got his scar.
Curtis looked up and managed a smile. "Don't worry about it, Lance. 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 he should’ve steered clear of an uncool middle-schooler like me. But Curtis 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. "James, from the Arescabin, was joking about me being 'Big Three' material. Then Katie... twice, she said I might be 'the one.' She said I should talk to the Oracle. What was that all about?"
Curtis folded his knife grimacing “I hate prophecies”
“What do you mean?”
His face twitched around his scar. "Let's just say I messed things up for everybody else. The last year, ever since my trip to the Garden of the Hesperides went sour, Chiron hasn't allowed any more quests. Katie’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 Katie 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, kid," Curtis said. "Katie wants to think every new camper who comes through here is the omen she has been waiting for”
Trying to wrap my head around that I tried to think why they would stop doing quests after one sour quest. According to Katie demigods life’s are kinda shitty out in the world and they know that.
“Why would that make them stop quests?”
“Because when it went sour it took me longer than expected to come back so a kid from our cabin, a unclaimed one..well he went to go find me ...and he hasn’t been seen since we still save his bed for him.” Curtis gloomily spoke, tremor in his voice and I shed tears in his eyes
“Curtis-“ I started
“Anyway it’s time for dinner” Curtis interrupted scrubbing his eyes
The moment he said it, a horn blew in the distance. Somehow, I knew it was a conch shell, even though I'd never heard one before.
Curtis 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. 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. Bigger camp than I expected.
At the pavilion, torches blazed around the marble columns. There was a central fire that 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 Hunk sitting at table nine, the Hephaestus table.
Katie sat at table six with a bunch of serious-looking athletic kids, all with gray eyes and honey blonde hair. She scared features with them but she did not have hair or eyes like them.
Curtis sat behind me at Ares's table. He had apparently gotten over being hosed down, because he was laughing right alongside his 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 Curtis 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 mama.

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, Lance," Curtis 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," Curtis 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.
Curtis 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.
Curtis approached the fire, bowed his head, and tossed in a cluster of fat red grapes. "Hermes."
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 loud 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. Chance McClean."
Chiron murmured something.
"Er, Lance McClain," 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 mama, but I had good thoughts: her smile, the bedtime stories she would read me when I was young, 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 Camp Half-Blood.
I wish I'd known how briefly I would get to enjoy my new home.

Chapter Text

The next few days I settled into a routine that felt almost normal, if you don't take into account that I was getting lessons from satyrs, nymphs, and a centaur.
Each morning I took Ancient Greek from Katie, and we talked about the gods and goddesses in the present tense, which was kind of weird. I discovered Katie was right about my dyslexia: Ancient Greek wasn't that hard for me to read. At least, no harder than English. After a couple of mornings, I could stumble through a few lines of Homer without too much headache.
The rest of the day, I'd rotate through outdoor activities, looking for something I was good at. Chiron tried to teach me archery, but while I was actually decent at it he did end up having to dodge one or two arrows. Don’t ask me because I’m not sure how I managed that either.
Foot racing? Absolutely not. Even though I have pretty long legs, I have a swimmers build and actually happen to hate running quite a bit. The wood nymph instructors left me in the dust from the very beginning. They told me not to worry about it. They'd had centuries of practice running away from lovesick gods. But still, it was a little humiliating to be slower than a literal tree.
And wrestling? Forget it. Every time I got on the mat, James would knock me down pretty much immediately.
"There's more where that came from, punk," He’d mumble in my ear.
The only thing I really excelled at was canoeing, and that wasn't the kind of powerful or heroic skill people expected to see from the kid who had beaten the Minotaur.
I knew the senior campers and counselors were watching me, trying to decide who my dad was, but they weren't having an easy time of it. I wasn't as strong as the Ares kids, or as good at archery as the Apollo kids. I didn't have Hephaestus's skill with metal work or-gods forbid- Dionysus's way with vine plants. Curtis told me I might be a child of Hermes, a kind of jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But I got the feeling he was just trying to make me feel better. He really didn't know what I could be any more than any other camper. I was a nightmare to try and figure out.
Despite all that, I liked camp. I got used to the morning fog over the beach, the smell of hot strawberry fields in the afternoon, even the weird noises of monsters in the woods at night. I would eat dinner with cabin eleven, scrape part of my meal into the fire, and try to feel some connection to my real dad. Nothing came. Just that warm feeling I'd always had, like the memory of his smile. I tried not to think much about my mama, every time I did my eyes would well up and lip quiver. I couldn’t help but wonder, if gods and monsters were real, if all this magical stuff was possible, surely there was some way to save her, to bring her back....
I started to understand Curtis’s bitterness and how he seemed to resent his father, Hermes. So okay, maybe gods had important things to do. But couldn't they call once in a while, or thunder, or something? Dionysus could make Diet Coke appear out of thin air. Why couldn't my dad, who-ever he was, make a phone appear? Why couldn’t they pay attention to us? Their kids?
Thursday afternoon, three days after I'd arrived at Camp Half-Blood, I had my first sword-fighting lesson. I was admittedly nervous as it was probably going to be just another thing I’m bad at in this Camp. Everybody from cabin eleven (or cabin wing shoes as I sometimes called it in my head) gathered in the big circular arena, where Curtis would be our instructor.
We started with basic stabbing and slashing, using some straw-stuffed dummies in Greek armor. I guess I did okay. I sucked in comparison to the others but at least, I understood what I was supposed to do and my reflexes were decent.
The problem was, I couldn't find a blade that felt right in my hands. Either they were too heavy, or too light, or too long. All of them felt awkward in my hands. Curtis tried his best to fix me up, but he agreed that none of the practice blades seemed to work for me.
We moved on to dueling in pairs. Curtis announced he would be my partner, since this was my first time.
"Good luck," one of the campers told me. "Curtis is the best swordsman in the last three hundred years."
"Maybe he'll go easy on me," I said hopeful.
The camper held back a laugh putting his hand in front of his mouth. A snicker escaped from their lips.
Curtis showed me thrusts and parries and shield blocks the hard way. With every swipe, I got a little more battered and bruised. "Keep your guard up, Lance," he'd say, then whap me in the ribs with the flat of his blade. "No, not that far up!" Whap! "Lunge!" Whap! "Now, back!" Whap!
By the time he called a break, I was soaked in sweat feeling like one of the practice dummies. Everybody swarmed the drinks cooler like bees. Curtis poured ice cold water on his head, which looked like such a good idea, I copied him.
"Okay, everybody circle up!" Curtis ordered. "If Lance doesn’t mind, I want to give you a little demo."
Great, I thought. Let's all watch Lance get his butt kicked.
The Hermes kids gathered around. They were suppressing smiles. I figured they'd been in my shoes before and couldn't wait to see how Curtis used me for a punching bag. He told everybody he was going to demonstrate a disarming technique: how to twist the enemy's blade with the flat of your own sword so that he had no choice but to drop his weapon.
"This is difficult," Curtis stressed. "I've had it used against me. No laughing at Lance, now. Most swordsmen have to work years to master this technique."
He demonstrated the move on me in slow motion. Sure enough, the sword clattered out of my hand.
"Now in real time," he said, after I'd retrieved my weapon. "We keep sparring until one of us pulls it off. Ready, Lance?"
I nodded, and Curtis came after me. Somehow, I kept him from getting a shot at the hilt of my sword. My senses opened up. I saw his attacks coming. I countered. I stepped forward and tried a thrust of my own. Curtis deflected it easily, but I saw a change in his face. His eyes narrowed, and he started to press me with more force.
The sword grew heavy in my hand. The balance wasn't right. I knew it was only a matter of seconds before Luke took me down, so I figured, Why not?
I tried the disarming maneuver.
My blade hit the base of Curtis’s and I twisted, putting my whole weight into a downward thrust.
Curtis’s sword rattled against the stones. The tip of my blade was an inch from his undefended chest. The other campers were silent.
I lowered my sword. "Um, sorry dude."
For a moment, Curtis was too stunned to speak.
"Sorry?" His scarred face broke into a grin. "By the gods, Lance, why are you sorry? Show me that again!"
I didn't want to. The short burst of manic energy had completely abandoned me. But Curtis insisted.
This time, there was no contest. The moment our swords connected, Curtis hit my hilt and sent my weapon skidding across the floor.
After a long pause, somebody in the audience said, "Beginner's luck?"
Curtis wiped the sweat off his brow. He appraised at me with an entirely new interest. "Maybe," he said. "But I wonder what Lance could do with a balanced sword... ."
Friday afternoon, I was sitting with Hunk at the lake, resting from a near-death experience on the climbing wall. Hunk had ran to the top, but the lava had almost gotten me. My shirt had smoking holes in it. The hairs had been signed off my forearms.
We sat on the pier, watching the naiads do underwater basket-weaving, until I got up the nerve to ask Hunk how his conversation had gone with Mr. D.
His face turned a sickly shade of yellow. "Fine," he said. "Just great."
"So your career's still on track”
He glanced at me nervously. “Chiron t-told you I want a searcher’s license”
"Well... no." I had no idea what a searcher's license was, but it didn't seem like the right time to ask. "He just said you had big plans, you know ... and that you needed credit for completing a keeper's assignment. So did you get it?"
Hunk looked down at the naiads. "Mr. D suspended judgment. He said I hadn't failed or succeeded with you yet, so our fates were still tied together. If you got a quest and I went along to protect you, and we both came back alive, then maybe he'd consider the job complete."
My spirits lifted. "Well, that's not so bad, right?"
"He might as well have transferred me to stable-cleaning duty. The chances of you getting a quest... and even if you did, why would you want me along?"
"Of course I'd want you along!"
Hunk stared glumly into the water. "Basket-weaving ... Must be nice to have a useful skill."
I tried to reassure him that he had lots of talents, but that just made him look more miserable. We talked about canoeing and swordplay for a while, then debated the pros and cons of the different gods. Finally, I asked him about the four empty cabins.
"Number eight, the silver one, belongs to Artemis," he said. "She vowed to be a maiden forever. So of course, no kids. The cabin is, you know, honorary. If she didn't have one, she'd be mad."
"Yeah, okay. But the other three, the ones at the end. Are those the Big Three?"
Hunk tensed. We were getting close to a touchy subject. "No. One of them, number two, is Hera's," he said. "That's another honorary thing. She is the goddess of marriage, so of course she wouldn't go around having affairs with mortals. That's her husband's job. When we say the Big Three, we mean the three powerful brothers, the sons of Kronos."
"Zeus, Poseidon, Hades."
"Right. You know. After the great battle with the Titans, they took over the world from their dad and drew lots to decide who got what."
"Zeus got the sky," I remembered. "Poseidon the sea, Hades the Underworld."
"But Hades doesn't have a cabin here."
"No. He doesn't have a throne on Olympus, either. He sort of does his own thing down in the Underworld. If he did have a cabin here ..." Hunk shuddered. "Well, it wouldn't be pleasant. Let's leave it at that."
"But Zeus and Poseidon, they both had, like, a ton of kids in the myths. Why are their cabins empty?"
Hunk shifted his feet uncomfortably. "About sixty years ago, after World War II, the Big Three agreed they wouldn't sire any more heroes. Their children were just too powerful. They were affecting the course of human events too much, causing too much carnage. World War II, you know, that was basically a fight between the sons of Zeus and Poseidon on one side, and the sons of Hades on the other. The winning side, Zeus and Poseidon, forced Hades swear an oath with them: no more affairs with mortal women. They all swore on the River Styx."
Thunder boomed overhead.

I said, "That's the most serious oath you can make."
Hunk nodded.
"And the brothers kept their word, no kids?"
Hunk’s face darkened. "Seventeen years ago, Zeus fell off the wagon. There was this TV starlet with a big fluffy eighties hairdo-he just couldn't help himself. When their child was born, a little boy named Takashi.. . well, the River Styx is serious about promises. Zeus himself got off easy because he's immortal, but he brought a terrible fate on his son."
"But that isn't fair.' It wasn't the little boy’s fault."
Hunk hesitated. "Lance, children of the Big Three have powers greater than other half-bloods. They have a strong aura, a scent that attracts monsters. When Hades found out about the boy, he wasn't too happy about Zeus breaking his oath. Hades let the worst monsters out of Tartarus to torment Takashi. A young boy was assigned to be his keeper when he was twelve, but there was nothing he could do. He tried to escort him here with a couple of other half-bloods he’d befriended. They almost made it. They got all the way to the top of that hill."
He pointed across the valley, to the pine tree where I'd fought the minotaur. "All three Kindly Ones were after them, along with a horde of hellhounds. They were about to be overrun when Takashi told his keeper to take the other two half-bloods to safety while he held off the monsters. He was wounded and tired, and he didn't want to live like a hunted animal. The keeper didn't want to leave him, but he couldn't change his mind, and he had to protect the others. So Takashi made his final stand alone, at the top of that hill. As he died, Zeus took pity on him. He turned him into that pine tree. His spirit still helps protect the borders of the valley. That's why the hill is called Half-Blood Hill."
I stared at the pine in the distance.
The story made me feel hollow, and guilty too. A boy my age had sacrificed herself to save her friends. He had faced a whole army of monsters. Next to that, my victory over the Minotaur didn't seem like much. I wondered, if I'd acted differently, could I have saved my mother?
"Hunk," I said, "have heroes really gone on quests to the Underworld?"
"Sometimes," he said. "Orpheus. Hercules. Houdini."
"And have they ever returned somebody from the dead?"
"No. Never. Orpheus came close...Lance, you're not seriously thinking-"
"No," I lied. "I was just wondering. So ... a demigod is always assigned to guard another demigod?"
Grover studied me warily. I hadn't persuaded him that I'd really dropped the Underworld idea. "No. Never in fact. It’s normally saytars but I’m the first demigod that has wanted to get a searcher’s license. They go undercover to a lot of schools. They try to spot out the half-bloods who have the makings of great heroes. If they find one with a very strong aura, like a child of the Big Three, we alert Chiron. He tries to keep an eye on them, since they could cause really huge problems."
"And you found me. Chiron said you thought I might be something special."
Hunk looked as if I'd just led him into a trap. "I didn't... Oh, listen, don't think like that. If you were-you know-you'd never ever be allowed a quest, and I'd never get my license. You're probably a child of Hermes. Or maybe even one of the minor gods, like Nemesis, the god of revenge. Don't worry, okay?"
I got the idea he was reassuring himself more than me.
That night after dinner, there was a lot more excitement than usual.
At last, it was time for capture the flag.
When the plates were cleared away, the conch horn sounded and we all stood at our tables.
Campers yelled and cheered as Katie and two of her siblings ran into the pavilion carrying a silk banner. It was about ten feet long, glistening gray, with a painting of a barn owl above an olive tree. From the opposite side of the pavilion, James and his buddies ran in with another banner, of identical size, but gaudy red, painted with a bloody spear and a boar's head.
I turned to Curtis and yelled over the noise, "Those are the flags?"
"Ares and Athena always lead the teams?"
"Not always," he said. "But often."
"So, if another cabin captures one, what do you do- repaint the flag?" He grinned. "You'll see. First we have to get one."
"Whose side are we on?"
He gave me a sly look, as if he knew something I didn't. The scar on his face made him look almost evil in the torchlight. "We've made a temporary alliance with Athena. Tonight, we get the flag from Ares. And you are going to help."
The teams were announced. Athena had made an alliance with Apollo and Hermes, the two biggest cabins. Apparently, privileges had been traded-shower times, chore schedules, the best slots for activities-in order to win support.
Ares had allied themselves with everybody else: Dionysus, Demeter, Aphrodite, and Hephaestus. From what I had seen, Dionysus's kids were actually good athletes, but there were only two of them. Demeter's kids had the edge with nature skills and outdoor stuff but they weren't very aggressive. Aphrodite's sons and daughters I wasn't too wor-ried about. They mostly sat out every activity and checked their reflections in the lake and did their hair and gossiped. Hephaestus's kids weren't pretty, and there were only four of them, but they were big and burly from working in the metal shop all day. They might be a problem. That, of course, left Ares's cabin: a dozen of the biggest, ugliest, meanest kids on Long Island, or anywhere else on the planet. James was the only one that looked decently good but even he looked questionable.
Chiron hammered his hoof on the marble.
"Heroes!" he announced. "You know the rules. The creek is the boundary line. The entire forest is fair game. All magic items are allowed. The banner must be prominently displayed, and have no more than two guards. Prisoners may be disarmed, but may not be bound or gagged. No killing or maiming is allowed. I will serve as referee and battlefield medic. Arm yourselves!"
He spread his hands, and the tables were suddenly covered with equipment: helmets, bronze swords, spears, oxhide shields coated in metal.
"Whoa," I said. "We're really supposed to use these?"
Curtis looked at me as if I were crazy. "Unless you want to get kabobbed by your buddies in cabin five. Here-Chiron thought these would fit. You'll be on border patrol."
My shield was the size of an NBA backboard, with a big caduceus in the middle. It weighed about a million pounds. I could have snowboarded on it fine, but I hoped nobody seriously expected me to run.
My helmet, like all the helmets on Athena's side, had a blue horsehair plume on top. Ares and their allies had red plumes.
Katie yelled, "Blue team, forward!"
We cheered and shook our swords and followed her down the path to the south woods. The red team yelled taunts at us as they headed off toward the north.
I managed to catch up with Katie without tripping over my equipment. "Hey."
She kept marching.
"So what's the plan?" I asked. "Got any magic items you can loan me?"
Her hand drifted toward her pocket, as if she were afraid I'd stolen something.
"Just watch James’s spear," she said. "You don't want that thing touching you. Otherwise, don't worry. We'll take the banner from Ares. Has Curtis given you your job?"
"Border patrol, whatever that means."
"It's easy. Stand by the creek, keep the reds away. Leave the rest to me. Athena always has a plan." She pushed ahead, leaving me in the dust.
"Okay," I mumbled. "Glad you wanted me on your team."
This young girl that I felt so protective over for some reason didn’t really act like she even liked me. I got border patrol which sounds incredibly boring, oh well.
It was a warm, sticky night. The woods were dark, with fireflies popping in and out of view. Katie stationed me next to a little creek that gurgled over some rocks, then she and the rest of the team scattered into the trees.
Standing there alone, with my big blue-feathered helmet and my huge shield, I felt like an idiot. The bronze sword, like all the swords I'd tried so far, seemed balanced wrong. The leather grip pulled on my hand like a bowling ball.
There was no way anybody would actually attack me, would they? I mean, Olympus had to have liability issues, right?
Far away, the conch horn blew. I heard whoops and yells in the woods, the clanking of metal, kids fighting. A blue-plumed ally from Apollo raced past me like a deer, leaped through the creek, and disappeared into enemy territory.
Great, I thought. I'll miss all the fun, as usual.
Then I heard a sound that sent a chill up my spine, a low canine growl, somewhere close by.
I raised my shield instinctively; I had the feeling some-thing was stalking me.
Then the growling stopped. I felt the presence retreat-ing.
On the other side of the creek, the underbrush exploded. Five Ares kids came yelling and screaming out of the dark.
Well this is going to be interesting.
"Cream the kid!" James screamed.
His blue-gray eyes glared at me through the slits of his helmet. He brandished a five-foot-long spear, its barbed metal tip flickering with red light. His siblings had only the standard-issue bronze swords-not that that fact made me feel any better.
They charged across the stream. There was no help in sight. I could run. Or I could defend myself against half the Ares cabin.
I managed to sidestep the first kid's swing, but these guys were not as stupid the Minotaur. They surrounded me, and James thrust at me with his spear. My shield deflected the point, but I felt a painful tingling all over my body. My hair stood on end. My shield arm went numb, and the air burned.
Electricity. His stupid spear was electric. I fell back.
An Ares guy slammed me in the chest with the butt of his sword and I hit the dirt.
They could've knocked me into jelly, but they were too busy laughing.
“Bring him for a swim," James said grinning wildly.
I managed to get to my feet. I raised my sword, but James slammed it aside with his spear as sparks flew. Now both my arms felt numb.
"Oh, wow," James said. "I'm scared of this guy. Really scared."
"The flag is that way," I told him. I wanted to sound angry, but I was afraid it didn't come out that way.
"Yeah," one of her siblings said. "But see, we don't care about the flag. We care about a guy who made our cabin look stupid."
"You do that without my help," I told them. It probably wasn't the smartest thing to say.
Two of them came at me. I backed up toward the creek, tried to raise my shield, but James was too fast. His spear stuck me straight in the ribs. If I hadn't been wearing an armored breastplate, I would've been shish-ke-babbed. As it was, the electric point just about shocked my teeth out of my mouth. One of his cabinmates slashed his sword across my arm, leaving a good-size cut.
Seeing my own blood made me dizzy-warm and cold at the same time. "No maiming," I managed to say.
"Oops," the guy said. "Guess I lost my dessert privilege.
He pushed me into the creek and I landed with a splash. They all laughed. I figured as soon as they were through being amused, I would die. But then something happened. The water seemed to wake up my senses, as if I'd just had a bag of my mom's double-espresso jelly beans.
James and his cabin mates came into the creek to get me, but I stood to meet them. I knew what to do. I swung the flat of my sword against the first guy's head and knocked his helmet clean off. I hit him so hard I could see his eyes vibrating as he crumpled into the water.
Ugly Number Two and Ugly Number Three came at me. I slammed one in the face with my shield and used my sword to shear off the other guy's horsehair plume. Both of them backed up quick. Ugly Number Four didn't look really anxious to attack, but James kept coming, the point of his spear crackling with energy. As soon as he thrust, I caught the shaft between the edge of my shield and my sword, and I snapped it like a twig.
"Ah!" He screamed. "You absolute idiot! You jerk! You good for nothing-!”
He never got to finish the last insult as I smacked him between the eyes with the butt of my sword that sent him stumbling backward out of the creek.
Then I heard yelling, elated screams, and I saw Curtis racing toward the boundary line with the red team's banner lifted high. He was flanked by a couple of Hermes guys covering his retreat, and a few Apollos behind them, fending off the Hephaestus kids. The Ares folks got up, and James muttered a dazed curse.
"A trick!" He shouted. "It was a trick."
They stumbled after Curtis, but it was too late. Everybody converged on the creek as Curtis ran across into friendly territory. Our side exploded into cheers. The red banner shimmered and turned to silver. The boar and spear were replaced with a huge caduceus, the symbol of cabin eleven. Everybody on the blue team picked up Curtis and started carrying him around on their shoulders. Chiron trotted out from the woods and blew the conch horn.
The game was over. We'd won.
I was about to join the celebration when Katie’s voice, right next to me in the creek, said, "Not bad."
I looked, but she wasn't there.
"Where the heck did you learn to fight like that?" she asked. The air shimmered, and she materialized, holding a Yankees baseball cap as if she'd just taken it off her head.
I felt myself getting angry. I didn’t care that she was young and I felt a protective energy around her like she was my little sister; she left me out to dry. I wasn't even fazed by the fact that she'd just been invisible eiether. "You set me up," I said. "You put me here because you knew James would come after me, while you sent Curtis around the flank. You had it all figured out."
Katie shrugged. "I told you. Athena always, always has a plan."
"A plan to get me killed."
"I came as fast as I could. I was about to jump in, but ..." She shrugged. "You didn't need help."
Then she noticed my wounded arm. "How did you do that?"
"Sword cut," I said. "What do you think?"
"No. It was a sword cut. Look at it."
The blood was gone. Where the huge cut had been, there was a long white scratch, and even that was fading. As I watched, it turned into a small scar, and disap-peared.
"I-I don't get it," I said.
Katie was thinking hard. I could almost see the gears turning. She looked down at my feet, then at James’s broken spear, and said, "Step out of the water, Lance."
"Just do it."
I came out of the creek and immediately felt bone tired. My arms started to go numb again. My adrenaline rush left me. I almost fell over, but Katie just barely steadied me.
"Oh, Styx," she cursed. "This is not good. I didn't want ... I assumed it would be Zeus... ."
Before I could ask what she meant, I heard that canine growl again, but much closer than before. A howl ripped through the forest.
The campers' cheering died instantly. Chiron shouted something in Ancient Greek, which I would realize, only later, I had understood perfectly: "Stand ready! My bow!"
Katie drew her sword.
There on the rocks just above us was a black hound the size of a rhino, with lava-red eyes and fangs like daggers.
It was looking straight at me.
Nobody moved except Katie, who yelled, "Lance, run!"
She tried to step in front of me, but the hound was too fast. It leaped over her-an enormous shadow with teeth-and just as it hit me, as I stumbled backward and felt its razor-sharp claws ripping through my armor, there was a cascade of thwacking sounds, like forty pieces of paper being ripped one after the other. From the hounds neck sprouted a cluster of arrows. The monster fell dead at my feet.
By some miracle, I was still alive. I didn't want to look underneath the ruins of my shredded armor. My chest felt warm and wet, and I knew I was badly cut. Another second, and the monster would've turned me into a hundred pounds of delicatessen meat.
Chiron trotted up next to us, a bow in his hand, his face grim.
"Di immortales!" Katie said. "That's a hellhound from the Fields of Punishment. They don't ... they're not supposed to ..."
"Someone summoned it," Chiron said. "Someone inside the camp."
Luke came over, the banner in his hand forgotten, his moment of glory gone.
James yelled, "It's all Lance’s fault! Lance summoned it!"
"Be quiet, young one," Chiron told him.
We watched the body of the hellhound melt into shadow, soaking into the ground until it disappeared. "You're wounded," Katie told me. "Quick, Lance, get in the water."
"I'm okay."
"No, you're not," she said. "Chiron, watch this."
I was too tired to argue. I stepped back into the creek, the whole camp gathering around me. Instantly, I felt better. I could feel the cuts on my chest closing up. Some of the campers gasped. "Look, I-I don't know why," I said, trying to apologize. "I'm sorry...."
But they weren't watching my wounds heal. They were staring at something above my head.
"Lance," Katie said, pointing. "Um ..."
By the time I looked up, the sign was already fading, but I could still make out the hologram of green light, spinning and gleaming. A three-tipped spear: a trident.
"Your dad," Katie murmured. "This is really not good. This is incredibly bad.”
"It is determined," Chiron announced.
All around me, campers started kneeling, even the Ares cabin, though they didn't look happy about it.
"My Papa?" I asked, completely bewildered.
"Poseidon," said Chiron. "Earthshaker, Stormbringer, Father of Horses. Hail, Lance Emertio McClain, Son of the Sea God."