"The Hunters!" Annabeth cried.
Next to me, Thalia muttered, "Oh, wonderful."
I didn't have a chance to ask what she meant.
One of the older archers stepped forward with her bow drawn. She was tall and graceful with coppery colored skin. Unlike the other girls, she had a silver circlet braided into the top of her long dark hair, so she looked like some kind of Persian princess. "Permission to kill, my lady?"
I couldn't tell who she was talking to, because she kept her eyes on the manticore.
The monster wailed. "This is not fair! Direct interference! It is against the Ancient Laws."
"Not so," another girl said. This one was a little younger than me, maybe twelve or thirteen. She had auburn hair gathered back in a ponytail and strange eyes, silvery yellow like the moon. Her face was so beautiful it made me catch my breath, but her expression was stern and dangerous. "The hunting of all wild beasts is within my sphere. And you, foul creature, are a wild beast." She looked at the older girl with the circlet. "Zoe, permission granted."
The manticore growled. "If I cannot have these alive, I shall have them dead!"
He lunged at Thalia and me, knowing we were weak and dazed.
"No.'" Annabeth yelled, and she charged at the monster.
"Get back, half-blood!" the girl with the circlet said. "Get out of the line of fire!"
But Annabeth leaped onto the monster's back and drove her knife into his mane. The manticore howled, turning in circles with his tail flailing as Annabeth hung on for dear life.
"Fire!" Zoe ordered.
"No!" I screamed.
But the Hunters let their arrows fly. The first caught the manticore in the neck. Another hit his chest. The manticore staggered backward, wailing, "This is not the end, Huntress! You shall pay!"
And before anyone could react, the monster, with Annabeth still on his back, leaped over the cliff and tumbled into the darkness.
"Annabeth!" I yelled.
I started to run after her, but our enemies weren't done with us. There was a snap-snap-snap from the helicopter—the sound of gunfire.
Most of the Hunters scattered as tiny holes appeared in the snow at their feet, but the girl with auburn hair just looked up calmly at the helicopter.
"Mortals," she announced, "are not allowed to witness my hunt."
She thrust out her hand, and the helicopter exploded into dust—no, not dust. The black metal dissolved into a flock of birds—ravens, which scattered into the night.
The Hunters advanced on us.
The one called Zoe stopped short when she saw Thalia. "You," she said with distaste.
"Zoe Nightshade." Thalia's voice trembled with anger. "Perfect timing, as usual."
Zoe scanned the rest of us. "Four half-bloods and a satyr, my lady."
"Yes," the younger girl said. "Some of Chiron's campers, I see."
"Annabeth!" I yelled. "You have to let us save her!"
The auburn-haired girl turned toward me. "I'm sorry, Percy Jackson, but your friend is beyond help."
I tried to struggle to my feet, but a couple of the girls held me down.
"You are in no condition to be hurling yourself off cliffs," the auburn-haired girl said.
"Let me go!" I demanded. "Who do you think you are?"
Zoe stepped forward as if to smack me.
"No," the other girl ordered. "I sense no disrespect, Zoe. He is simply distraught. He does not understand."
The young girl looked at me, her eyes colder and brighter than the winter moon. "I am Artemis," she said. "Goddess of the Hunt."
BIANCA DI ANCELO MAKES A CHOICE
After seeing Dr. Thorn turn into a monster and plummet off the edge of a cliff with Annabeth, you'd think nothing else could shock me. But when this twelve-year-old girl told me she was the goddess Artemis, I said something real intelligent like, "Um… okay."
That was nothing compared to Grover. He gasped, then knelt hastily in the snow and started yammering, "Thank you, Lady Artemis! You're so… you're so… Wow!"
"Get up, goat boy!" Thalia snapped. "We have other things to worry about. Annabeth is gone!"
"Whoa," Bianca di Angelo said. "Hold up. Time out."
Everybody looked at her. She pointed her finger at all of us in turn, like she was trying to connect the dots. "Who… who are you people?"
Artemis's expression softened."It might be a better question, my dear girl, to ask who are you!Who are your parents?"
Bianca glanced nervously at her brother, who was still staring in awe at Artemis.
Our parents are dead," Bianca said. "We're orphans. There's a bank trust that pays for our school, but…"
She faltered. I guess she could tell from our faces that we didn't believe her.
"What?" she demanded. "I'm telling the truth."
"You are a half-blood," Zoe Nightshade said. Her accent was hard to place. It sounded old-fashioned, like she was reading from a really old book. "One of thy parents was mortal. The other was an Olympian."
"An Olympian… athlete?"
"No," Zoe said. "One of the gods."
"Cool!" said Nico.
"No!" Bianca's voice quavered. "This is not cool!"
Nico danced around like he needed to use the restroom. "Does Zeus really have lightning bolts that do six hundred damage? Does he get extra movement points for—"
"Nico, shut up!" Bianca put her hands to her face. "This is not your stupid Mythomagic game, okay? There are no gods!"
As anxious as I felt about Annabeth—all I wanted to do was search for her—I couldn't help feeling sorry for the di Angelos. I remembered what it was like for me when I first learned I was a demigod.
Thalia must've been feeling something similar, because the anger in her eyes subsided a little bit. "Bianca, I know it's hard to believe. But the gods are still around. Trust me. They're immortal. And whenever they have kids with regular humans, kids like us, well… Our lives are dangerous."
"Dangerous," Bianca said, "like the girl who fell."
Thalia turned away. Even Artemis looked pained.
"Do not despair for Annabeth," the goddess said. "She was a brave maiden. If she can be found, I shall find her."
"Then why won't you let us go look for her?" I asked.
"She is gone. Can't you sense it, Son of Poseidon? Some magic is at work. I do not know exactly how or why, but your friend has vanished."
I still wanted to jump off the cliff and search for her, but I had a feeling that Artemis was right. Annabeth was gone. If she'd been down there in the sea, I thought, I'd be able to feel her presence.
"Oo!" Nico raised his hand. "What about Dr. Thorn? That was awesome how you shot him with arrows! Is he dead?"
"He was a manticore," Artemis said. "Hopefully he is destroyed for now, but monsters never truly die. They re-form over and over again, and they must be hunted whenever they reappear."
"Or they'll hunt us," Thalia said.
Bianca di Angelo shivered. "That explains… Nico, you remember last summer, those guys who tried to attack us in the alley in DC?"
"And that bus driver," Nico said. "The one with the ram's horns. I told you that was real."
"That's why Grover has been watching you," I said. "To keep you safe, if you turned out to be half-bloods."
"Grover?" Bianca stared at him. "You're a demigod?"
"Well, a satyr, actually." He kicked off his shoes and displayed his goat hooves. I thought Bianca was going to faint right there.
"Grover, put your shoes back on," Thalia said. "You're freaking her out."
"Hey, my hooves are clean!"
"Bianca," I said, "we came here to help you. You and Nico need training to survive. Dr. Thorn won't be the last monster you meet. You need to come to camp."
"Camp?" she asked.
"Camp Half-Blood," I said. "It's where half-bloods learn to survive and stuff. You can join us, stay there year-round if you like."
"Sweet, let's go!" said Nico.
"Wait," Bianca shook her head. "I don't—"
"There is another option," Zoe said.
"No, there isn't!" Thalia said.
Thalia and Zoe glared at each other. I didn't know what they were talking about, but I could tell there was bad history between them. For some reason, they seriously hated each other.
"We've burdened these children enough," Artemis announced. "Zoe, we will rest here for a few hours. Raise the tents. Treat the wounded. Retrieve our guests' belongings from the school."
"Yes, my lady."
"And, Bianca, come with me. I would like to speak with you."
"What about me?" Nico asked.
Artemis considered the boy. "Perhaps you can show Grover how to play that card game you enjoy. I'm sure Grover would be happy to entertain you for a while… as a favor to me?"
Grover just about tripped over himself getting up. "You bet! Come on, Nico!"
Nico and Grover walked off toward the woods, talking about hit points and armor ratings and a bunch of other geeky stuff. Artemis led a confused-looking Bianca along the cliff. The Hunters began unpacking their knapsacks and making camp.
Zoe gave Thalia one more evil look, then left to oversee things.
As soon as she was gone, Thalia stamped her foot in frustration. "The nerve of those Hunters! They think they're so… Argh!"
"I'm with you," I said. "I don't trust—"
"Oh, you're with me?" Thalia turned on me furiously. "What were you thinking back there in the gym, Percy? You'd take on Dr. Thorn all by yourself? You knew he was a monster!"
"If we'd stuck together, we could've taken him without the Hunters getting involved. Annabeth might still be here. Did you think of that?"
My jaw clenched. I thought of some harsh things to say, and I might've said them too, but then I looked down and saw something navy blue lying in the snow at my feet. Annabeth's New York Yankees baseball cap.
Thalia didn't say another word. She wiped a tear from her cheek, turned, and marched off, leaving me alone with a trampled cap in the snow.
The Hunters set up their camping site in a matter of minutes. Seven large tents, all of silver silk, curved in a crescent around one side of a bonfire. One of the girls blew a silver dog whistle, and a dozen white wolves appeared out of the woods. They began circling the camp like guard dogs. The Hunters walked among them and fed them treats, completely unafraid, but I decided I would stick close to the tents. Falcons watched us from the trees, their eyes flashing in the firelight, and I got the feeling they were on guard duty, too. Even the weather seemed to bend to the goddess's will. The air was still cold, but the wind died down and the snow stopped falling, so it was almost pleasant sitting by the fire.
Almost… except for the pain in my shoulder and the guilt weighing me down. I couldn't believe Annabeth was gone. And as angry as I was at Thalia, I had a sinking feeling that she was right. It was my fault.