What had Annabeth wanted to tell me in the gym? Something serious, she'd said. Now I might never find out. I thought about how we'd danced together for half a song, and my heart felt even heavier.
I watched Thalia pacing in the snow at the edge of camp, walking among the wolves without fear. She stopped and looked back at Westover Hall, which was now completely dark, looming on the hillside beyond the woods. I wondered what she was thinking.
Seven years ago, Thalia had been turned into a pine tree by her father, to prevent her from dying. She'd stood her ground against an army of monsters on top of Half-Blood Hill in order to give her friends Luke and Annabeth time to escape. She'd only been back as a human for a few months now, and once in a while she would stand so motionless you'd think she was still a tree.
Finally, one of the Hunters brought me my backpack. Grover and Nico came back from their walk, and Grover helped me fix up my wounded arm.
"It's green!" Nico said with delight.
"Hold still," Grover told me. "Here, eat some ambrosia while I clean that out."
I winced as he dressed the wound, but the ambrosia square helped. It tasted like homemade brownie, dissolving in my mouth and sending a warm feeling through my whole body. Between that and the magic salve Grover used, my shoulder felt better within a couple of minutes.
Nico rummaged through his own bag, which the Hunters had apparently packed for him, though how they'd snuck into Westover Hall unseen, I didn't know. Nico laid out a bunch of figurines in the snow—little battle replicas of Greek gods and heroes. I recognized Zeus with a lightning bolt, Ares with a spear, Apollo with his sun chariot.
"Big collection," I said.
Nico grinned. "I've got almost all of them, plus their holographic cards! Well, except for a few really rare ones."
"You've been playing this game a long time?"
"Just this year. Before that…" He knit his eyebrows.
"What?" I asked.
"I forget. That's weird."
He looked unsettled, but it didn't last long. "Hey, can I see that sword you were using?"
I showed him Riptide, and explained how it turned from a pen into a sword just by uncapping it.
"Cool! Does it ever run out of ink?"
"Um, well, I don't actually write with it."
"Are you really the son of Poseidon?"
"Can you surf really well, then?"
I looked at Grover, who was trying hard not to laugh.
"Jeez, Nico," I said. "I've never really tried."
He went on asking questions. Did I fight a lot with Thalia, since she was a daughter of Zeus? (I didn't answer that one.) If Annabeth's mother was Athena, the goddess of wisdom, then why didn't Annabeth know better than to fall off a cliff? (I tried not to strangle Nico for asking that one.) Was Annabeth my girlfriend? (At this point, I was ready to stick the kid in a meat-flavored sack and throw him to the wolves.)
I figured any second he was going to ask me how many hit points I had, and I'd lose my cool completely, but then Zoe Nightshade came up to us.
She had dark brown eyes and a slightly upturned nose. With her silver circlet and her proud expression, she looked so much like royalty that I had to resist the urge to sit up straight and say "Yes, ma'am." She studied me distastefully, like I was a bag of dirty laundry she'd been sent to fetch.
"Come with me," she said. "Lady Artemis wishes to speak with thee."
Zoe led me to the last tent, which looked no different from the others, and waved me inside. Bianca di Angelo was seated next to the auburn-haired girl, who I still had trouble thinking of as Artemis.
The inside of the tent was warm and comfortable. Silk rugs and pillows covered the floor. In the center, a golden brazier of fire seemed to burn without fuel or smoke. Behind the goddess, on a polished oak display stand, was her huge silver bow, carved to resemble gazelle horns. The walls were hung with animal pelts: black bear, tiger, and several others I didn't recognize. I figured an animal rights activist would've had a heart attack looking at all those rare skins, but maybe since Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, she could replenish whatever she shot. I thought she had another animal pelt lying next to her, and then I realized it was a live animal—a deer with glittering fur and silver horns, its head resting contentedly in Artemis's lap.
"Join us, Percy Jackson," the goddess said.
I sat across from her on the tent floor. The goddess studied me, which made me uncomfortable. She had such old eyes for a young girl.
"Are you surprised by my age?" she asked.
"Uh… a little."
"I could appear as a grown woman, or a blazing fire, or anything else I want, but this is what I prefer. This is the average age of my Hunters, and all young maidens for whom I am patron, before they go astray."
"Go astray?" I asked.
"Grow up. Become smitten with boys. Become silly, preoccupied, insecure. Forget themselves."
Zoe sat down at Artemis's right. She glared at me as if all the stuff Artemis had just said was my fault, like I'd invented the idea of being a guy.
"You must forgive my Hunters if they do not welcome you," Artemis said. "It is very rare that we would have boys in this camp. Boys are usually forbidden to have any contact with the Hunters. The last one to see this camp…" She looked at Zoe. "Which one was it?"
"That boy in Colorado," Zoe said. "You turned him into a jackalope."
"Ah, yes." Artemis nodded, satisfied. "I enjoy making jackalopes. At any rate, Percy, I've asked you here so that you might tell me more of the manticore. Bianca has reported some of the… mmm, disturbing things the monster said. But she may not have understood them. I'd like to hear them from you."
And so I told her.
When I was done, Artemis put her hand thoughtfully on her silver bow. "I feared this was the answer."
Zoe sat forward. "The scent, my lady?"
"What scent?" I asked.
"Things are stirring that I have not hunted in millennia," Artemis murmured. "Prey so old I have nearly forgotten."
She stared at me intently. "We came here tonight sensing the manticore, but he was not the one I seek. Tell me again, exactly what Dr. Thorn said."
"Um, 'I hate middle school dances.'"
"No, no. After that."
"He said somebody called the General was going to explain things to me."
Zoe's face paled. She turned to Artemis and started to say something, but Artemis raised her hand.
"Go on, Percy," the goddess said.
"Well, then Thorn was talking about the Great Stir Pot—"
"Stirring," Bianca corrected.
"Yeah. And he said, 'Soon we shall have the most important monster of all—the one that shall bring about the downfall of Olympus.'"
The goddess was so still she could've been a statue.
"Maybe he was lying," I said.
Artemis shook her head. "No. He was not. I've been too slow to see the signs. I must hunt this monster."
Zoe looked like she was trying very hard not to be afraid, but she nodded. "We will leave right away, my lady."
"No, Zoe. I must do this alone."
"This task is too dangerous even for the Hunters. You know where I must start my search. You cannot go there with me."
"As… as you wish, my lady."
I will find this creature," Artemis vowed. "And I shall bring it back to Olympus by winter solstice. It will be all the proof I need to convince the Council of the Gods of how much danger we are in."
"You know what the monster is?" I asked.
Artemis gripped her bow. "Let us pray I am wrong."
"Can goddesses pray?" I asked, because I'd never really thought about that.
A flicker of a smile played across Artemis's lips. "Before I go, Percy Jackson, I have a small task for you."
"Does it involve getting turned into a jackalope?"
"Sadly, no. I want you to escort the Hunters back to Camp Half-Blood. They can stay there in safety until I return."
"What?" Zoe' blurted out. "But, Artemis, we hate that place. The last time we stayed there—"
"Yes, I know," Artemis said. "But I'm sure Dionysus will not hold a grudge just because of a little, ah, misunderstanding. It's your right to use Cabin Eight whenever you are in need. Besides, I hear they rebuilt the cabins you burned down."
Zoe muttered something about foolish campers.
"And now there is one last decision to make." Artemis turned to Bianca. "Have you made up your mind, my girl?"
Bianca hesitated. "I'm still thinking about it."
"Wait," I said. "Thinking about what?"
"They… they've invited me to join the Hunt."
"What? But you can't! You have to come to Camp Half-Blood so Chiron can train you. It's the only way you can learn to survive."
"It is not the only way for a girl," Zoe said.
I couldn't believe I was hearing this. "Bianca, camp is cool! It's got a pegasus stable and a sword-fighting arena and… I mean, what do you get by joining the Hunters?"
"To begin with," Zoe said, "immortality."
I stared at her, then at Artemis. "She's kidding, right?"
"Zoe rarely kids about anything," Artemis said. "My Hunters follow me on my adventures. They are my maidservants, my companions, my sisters-in-arms. Once they swear loyalty to me, they are indeed immortal… unless they fall in battle, which is unlikely. Or break their oath."
"What oath?" I said.
"To foreswear romantic love forever," Artemis said. "To never grow up, never get married. To be a maiden eternally."
The goddess nodded.
I tried to imagine what she was saying. Being immortal. Hanging out with only middle-school girls forever. I couldn't get my mind around it. "So you just go around the country recruiting half-bloods—"
"Not just half-bloods," Zoe interrupted. "Lady Artemis does not discriminate by birth. All who honor the goddess may join. Half-bloods, nymphs, mortals—"
"Which are you, then?"
Anger flashed in Zoe's eyes. "That is not thy concern, boy. The point is Bianca may join if she wishes. It is her choice."
"Bianca, this is crazy," I said. "What about your brother? Nico can't be a Hunter."
"Certainly not," Artemis agreed. "He will go to camp. Unfortunately, that's the best boys can do."
"Hey!" I protested.
"You can see him from time to time," Artemis assured Bianca. "But you will be free of responsibility. He will have the camp counselors to take care of him. And you will have a new family. Us."
"A new family," Bianca repeated dreamily. "Free of responsibility."
"Bianca, you can't do this," I said. "It's nuts."
She looked at Zoe. "Is it worth it?"
Zoe nodded. "It is."