I caught a glimpse of Silena and her two scouts. They ran through a clearing, followed by five of the Hunters, leading them deep into the woods and away from Thalia. The plan seemed to be working. Then I spotted another clump of Hunters heading to the right, bows ready. They must've spotted Thalia.
"What's happening?" Nico demanded, trying to climb up next to me.
My mind was racing. Thalia would never get through, but the Hunters were divided. With that many on either flank, their center had to be wide open. If I moved fast…
I looked at Beckendorf. "Can you guys hold the fort?"
Beckendorf snorted. "Of course."
"I'm going in.
The Stoll brothers and Nico cheered as I raced toward the boundary line.
I was running at top speed and I felt great. I leaped over the creek into enemy territory. I could see their silver flag up ahead, only one guard, who wasn't even looking in my direction. I heard fighting to my left and right, somewhere in the woods. I had it made.
The guard turned at the last minute. It was Bianca di Angelo. Her eyes widened as I slammed into her and she went sprawling in the snow.
"Sorry!" I yelled. I ripped down the silver silk flag from the tree and took off.
I was ten yards away before Bianca managed to yell for help. I thought I was home free.
ZIP. A silvery cord raced across my ankles and fastened to the tree next to me. A trip wire, fired from a bow! Before I could even think about stopping, I went down hard, sprawling in the snow.
"Percy!" Thalia yelled, off to my left. "What are you doing?"
Before she reached me, an arrow exploded at her feet and a cloud of yellow smoke billowed around her team. They started coughing and gagging. I could smell the gas from across the woods—the horrible smell of sulfur.
"No fair!" Thalia gasped. "Fart arrows are unsportsmanlike!"
I got up and started running again. Only a few more yards to the creek and I had the game. More arrows whizzed past my ears. A Hunter came out of nowhere and slashed at me with her knife, but I parried and kept running.
I heard yelling from our side of the creek. Beckendorf and Nico were running toward me. I thought they were coming to welcome me back, but then I saw they were chasing someone—Zoe Nightshade, racing toward me like a cheetah, dodging campers with no trouble. And she had our flag in her hands.
"No!" I yelled, and poured on the speed.
I was two feet from the water when Zoe bolted across to her own side, slamming into me for good measure. The Hunters cheered as both sides converged on the creek. Chiron appeared out of the woods, looking grim. He had the Stoll brothers on his back, and it looked as if both of them had taken some nasty whacks to the head. Connor Stoll had two arrows sticking out of his helmet like antennae.
"The Hunters win!" Chiron announced without pleasure. Then he muttered, "For the fifty-sixth time in a row."
"Perseus Jackson!" Thalia yelled, storming toward me. She smelled like rotten eggs, and she was so mad that blue sparks flickered on her armor. Everybody cringed and backed up because of Aegis. It took all my willpower not to cower.
"What in the name of the gods were you THINKING?" she bellowed.
I balled my fists. I'd had enough bad stuff happen to me for one day. I didn't need this. "I got the flag, Thalia!" I shook it in her face. "I saw a chance and I took it!"
"I WAS AT THEIR BASE!" Thalia yelled. "But the flag was gone. If you hadn't butted in, we would've won."
"You had too many on you!"
"Oh, so it's my fault?"
"I didn't say that."
"Argh!" Thalia pushed me, and a shock went through my body that blew me backward ten feet into the water. Some of the campers gasped. A couple of the Hunters stifled laughs.
"Sorry!" Thalia said, turning pale. "I didn't mean to—"
Anger roared in my ears. A wave erupted from the creek, blasting into Thalia's face and dousing her from head to toe.
I stood up. "Yeah," I growled. "I didn't mean to, either."
Thalia was breathing heavily.
"Enough!" Chiron ordered.
But Thalia held out her spear. "You want some, Seaweed Brain?"
Somehow, it was okay when Annabeth called me that—at least, I'd gotten used to it—but hearing it from Thalia was not cool.
"Bring it on, Pinecone Face!"
I raised Riptide, but before I could even defend myself, Thalia yelled, and a blast of lightning came down from the sky, hit her spear like a lightning rod, and slammed into my chest.
I sat down hard. There was a burning smell; I had a feeling it was my clothes.
"Thalia!" Chiron said. "That is enough!"
I got to my feet and willed the entire creek to rise. It swirled up, hundreds of gallons of water in a massive icy funnel cloud.
"Percy!" Chiron pleaded.
I was about to hurl it at Thalia when I saw something in the woods. I lost my anger and my concentration all at once. The water splashed back into the creekbed. Thalia was so surprised she turned to see what I was looking at.
Someone… something was approaching. It was shrouded in a murky green mist, but as it got closer, the campers and Hunters gasped.
"This is impossible," Chiron said. I'd never heard him sound so nervous. "It… she has never left the attic. Never."
And yet, the withered mummy that held the Oracle shuffled forward until she stood in the center of the group. Mist curled around our feet, turning the snow a sickly shade of green.
None of us dared move. Then her voice hissed inside my head. Apparently everyone could hear it, because several clutched their hands over the ears.
I am the sprit of Delphi, the voice said. Speaker of the prophecies of Phoebus Apollo, slayer of the mighty Python.
The Oracle regarded me with its cold, dead eyes. Then she turned unmistakably toward Zoe Nightshade. Approach, Seeker, and ask.
Zoe swallowed. "What must I do to help my goddess?"
The Oracle's mouth opened, and green mist poured out. I saw the vague image of a mountain, and a girl standing at the barren peak. It was Artemis, but she was wrapped in chains, fettered to the rocks. She was kneeling, her hands raised as if to fend off an attacker, and it looked like she was in pain. The Oracle spoke:
Five shall go west to the goddess in chains,
One shall be lost in the land without rain,
The bane of Olympus shows the trail,
Campers and Hunters combined prevail,
The Titan's curse must one withstand,
And one shall perish by a parent's hand.
Then, as we were watching, the mist swirled and retreated like a great green serpent into the mummy's mouth. The Oracle sat down on a rock and became as still as she'd been in the attic, as if she might sit by this creek for a hundred years.
EVERYBODY HATES ME BUT THE HORSE
The least the Oracle could've done was walk back to the attic by herself.
Instead, Grover and I were elected to carry her. I didn't figure that was because we were the most popular.
"Watch her head!" Grover warned as we went up the stairs. But it was too late.
Bonk! I whacked her mummified face against the trapdoor frame and dust flew.
"Ah, man." I set her down and checked for damage. "Did I break anything?"
"I can't tell," Grover admitted.
We hauled her up and set her on her tripod stool, both of us huffing and sweating. Who knew a mummy could weigh so much?
I assumed she wouldn't talk to me, and I was right. I was relieved when we finally got out of there and slammed the attic door shut.
"Well," Grover said, "that was gross."
I knew he was trying to keep things light for my sake, but I still felt really down. The whole camp would be mad at me for losing the game to the Hunters, and then there was the new prophecy from the Oracle. It was like the spirit of Delphi had gone out of her way to exclude me. She'd ignored my question and walked half a mile to talk to Zoe. And she'd said nothing, not even a hint, about Annabeth.
"What will Chiron do?" I asked Grover.
"I wish I knew." He looked wistfully out the second-floor window at the rolling hills covered in snow. "I want to be out there."
"Searching for Annabeth?"
He had a little trouble focusing on me. Then he blushed. "Oh, right. That too. Of course."
"Why?" I asked. "What were you thinking?"
He clopped his hooves uneasily. "Just something the manticore said, about the Great Stirring. I can't help but wonder… if all those ancient powers are waking up, maybe… maybe not all of them are evil."
"You mean Pan."
I felt kind of selfish, because I'd totally forgotten about Grover's life ambition. The nature god had gone missing two thousand years ago. He was rumored to have died, but the satyrs didn't believe that. They were determined to find him. They'd been searching in vain for centuries, and Grover was convinced he'd be the one to succeed. This year, with Chiron putting all the satyrs on emergency duty to find half-bloods, Grover hadn't been able to continue his search. It must've been driving him nuts.
"I've let the trail go cold," he said. "I feel restless, like I'm missing something really important. He's out there somewhere. I can just feel it."
I didn't know what to say. I wanted to encourage him, but I didn't know how. My optimism had pretty much been trampled into the snow out there in the woods, along with our capture-the-flag hopes.
Before I could respond, Thalia tromped up the stairs. She was officially not talking to me now, but she looked at Grover and said, "Tell Percy to get his butt downstairs."
"Why?" I asked.
"Did he say something?" Thalia asked Grover.
"Um, he asked why."
"Dionysus is calling a council of cabin leaders to discuss the prophecy," she said. "Unfortunately, that includes Percy."
The council was held around a Ping-Pong table in the rec room. Dionysus waved his hand and supplied snacks: Cheez Whiz, crackers, and several bottles of red wine. Then Chiron reminded him that wine was against his restrictions and most of us were underage. Mr. D sighed. With a snap of his fingers the wine turned to Diet Coke. Nobody drank that either.
Mr. D and Chiron (in wheelchair form) sat at one end of the table. Zoe and Bianca di Angelo (who had kind of become Zoe's personal assistant) took the other end. Thalia and Grover and I sat along the right, and the other head councilors—Beckendorf, Silena Beauregard, and the Stoll brothers—sat on the left. The Ares kids were supposed to send a representative, too, but all of them had gotten broken limbs (accidentally) during capture the flag, courtesy of the Hunters. They were resting up in the infirmary.
Zoe started the meeting off on a positive note. "This is pointless."
"Cheez Whiz!" Grover gasped. He began scooping up crackers and Ping-Pong balls and spraying them with topping.
"There is no time for talk," Zoe continued. "Our goddess needs us. The Hunters must leave immediately."
"And go where?" Chiron asked.
"West!" Bianca said. I was amazed at how different she looked after just a few days with the Hunters. Her dark hair was braided like Zoe's now, so you could actually see her face. She had a splash of freckles across her nose, and her dark eyes vaguely reminded me of someone famous, but I couldn't think who. She looked like she'd been working out, and her skin glowed faintly, like the other Hunters, as if she'd been taking showers in liquid moonlight. "You heard the prophecy. Five shall go west to the goddess in chains. We can get five hunters and go."