Zoe and Bianca were above us, bows ready, but they kept having to move around to get a good angle.
"No clear shot!" Zoe yelled. "Get it to open its mouth more!"
The lion snarled from the top of the globe.
I looked around. Options. I needed…
The gift shop. I had a vague memory from my trip here as a little kid. Something I'd made my mom buy me, and I'd regretted it. If they still sold that stuff…
"Thalia," I said, "keep it occupied."
She nodded grimly.
"Hi-yah!" She pointed her spear and a spidery arc of blue electricity shot out, zapping the lion in the tail.
"ROOOOOOOAR!" The lion turned and pounced. Thalia rolled out of its way, holding up Aegis to keep the monster at bay, and I ran for the gift shop.
"This is no time for souvenirs, boy!" Zoe yelled.
I dashed into the shop, knocking over rows of T-shirts, jumping over tables full of glow-in-the-dark planets and space ooze. The sales lady didn't protest. She was too busy cowering behind her cash register.
There! On the far wall—glittery silver packets. Whole racks of them. I scooped up every kind I could find and ran out of the shop with an armful.
Zoe and Bianca were still showering arrows on the monster, but it was no good. The lion seemed to know better than to open its mouth too much. It snapped at Thalia, slashing with its claws. It even kept its eyes narrowed to tiny slits.
Thalia jabbed at the monster and backed up. The lion pressed her.
"Percy," she called, "whatever you're going to do—"
The lion roared and swatted her like a cat toy, sending her flying into the side of a Titan rocket. Her head hit the metal and she slid to the floor.
"Hey!" I yelled at the lion. I was too far away to strike, so I took a risk: I hurled Riptide like a throwing knife. It bounced off the lion's side, but that was enough to get the monster's attention. It turned toward me and snarled.
There was only one way to get close enough. I charged, and as the lion leaped to intercept me, I chunked a space food pouch into its maw—a chunk of cellophane-wrapped, freeze-dried strawberry parfait.
The lion's eyes got wide and it gagged like a cat with a hairball.
I couldn't blame it. I remembered feeling the same way when I'd tried to eat space food as a kid. The stuff was just plain nasty.
"Zoe, get ready!" I yelled.
Behind me, I could hear people screaming. Grover was playing another horrible song on his pipes.
I scrambled away from the lion. It managed to choke down the space food packet and looked at me with pure hate.
"Snack time!" I yelled.
It made the mistake of roaring at me, and I got an ice-cream sandwich in its throat. Fortunately, I had always been a pretty good pitcher, even though baseball wasn't my game. Before the lion could stop gagging, I shot in two more flavors of ice cream and a freeze-dried spaghetti dinner.
The lion's eyes bugged. It opened its mouth wide and reared up on its back paws, trying to get away from me.
"Now!" I yelled.
Immediately, arrows pierced the lion's maw—two, four, six. The lion thrashed wildly, turned, and fell backward. And then it was still.
Alarms wailed throughout the museum. People were flocking to the exits. Security guards were running around in a panic with no idea what was going on.
Grover knelt at Thalia's side and helped her up. She seemed okay, just a little dazed. Zoe and Bianca dropped from the balcony and landed next to me.
Zoe eyed me cautiously. "That was… an interesting strategy."
"Hey, it worked."
She didn't argue.
The lion seemed to be melting, the way dead monsters do sometimes, until there was nothing left but its glittering fur coat, and even that seemed to be shrinking to the size of a normal lion's pelt.
"Take it," Zoe told me.
I stared at her. "What, the lion's fur? Isn't that, like, an animal rights violation or something?"
"It is a spoil of war," she told me. "It is rightly thine."
"You killed it," I said.
She shook her head, almost smiling. "I think thy ice-cream sandwich did that. Fair is fair, Percy Jackson. Take the fur."
I lifted it up; it was surprisingly light. The fur was smooth and soft. It didn't feel at all like something that could stop a blade. As I watched, the pelt shifted and changed into a coat—a full-length golden-brown duster.
"Not exactly my style," I murmured.
"We have to get out of here," Grover said. "The security guards won't stay confused for long."
I noticed for the first time how strange it was that the guards hadn't rushed forward to arrest us. They were scrambling in all directions except ours, like they were madly searching for something. A few were running into the walls or each other.
"You did that?" I asked Grover.
He nodded, looking a little embarrassed. "A minor confusion song. I played some Barry Manilow. It works every time. But it'll only last a few seconds."
"The security guards are not our biggest worry," Zoe said. "Look."
Through the glass walls of the museum, I could see a group of men walking across the lawn. Gray men in gray camouflage outfits. They were too far away for us to see their eyes, but I could feel their gaze aimed straight at me.
"Go," I said. "They'll be hunting me. I'll distract them."
"No," Zoe said. "We go together."
I stared at her. "But, you said—"
"You are part of this quest now," Zoe said grudgingly. "I do not like it, but there is no changing fate. You are the fifth quest member. And we are not leaving anyone behind."
GROVER GETS A LAMBORGHINI
We were crossing the Potomac when we spotted the helicopter. It was a sleek, black military model just like the one we'd seen at Westover Hall. And it was coming straight toward us.
"They know the van," I said. "We have to ditch it."
Zoe swerved into the fast lane. The helicopter was gaining.
"Maybe the military will shoot it down," Grover said hopefully.
"The military probably thinks it's one of theirs," I said. "How can the General use mortals, anyway?"
"Mercenaries," Zoe said bitterly. "It is distasteful, but many mortals will fight for any cause as long as they are paid."
"But don't these mortals see who they're working for?" I asked. "Don't they notice all the monsters around them?"
Zoe shook her head. "I do not know how much they see through the Mist. I doubt it would matter to them if they knew the truth. Sometimes mortals can be more horrible than monsters."
The helicopter kept coming, making a lot better time than we were through D.C. traffic.
Thalia closed her eyes and prayed hard. "Hey, Dad. A lightning bolt would be nice about now. Please?"
But the sky stayed gray and snowy. No sign of a helpful thunderstorm.
"There!" Bianca said. "That parking lot!"
"We'll be trapped," Zoe said.
"Trust me," Bianca said.
Zoe shot across two lanes of traffic and into a mall parking lot on the south bank of the river. We left the van and followed Bianca down some steps.
"Subway entrance," Bianca said. "Let's go south. Alexandria."
"Anything," Thalia agreed.
We bought tickets and got through the turnstiles, looking behind us for any signs of pursuit. A few minutes later we were safely aboard a southbound train, riding away from D.C. As our train came above ground, we could see the helicopter circling the parking lot, but it didn't come after us.
Grover let out a sigh. "Nice job, Bianca, thinking of the subway."
Bianca looked pleased. "Yeah, well. I saw that station when Nico and I came through last summer. I remember being really surprised to see it, because it wasn't here when we used to live in D.C."
Grover frowned. "New? But that station looked really old."
"I guess," Bianca said. "But trust me, when we lived here as little kids, there was no subway."
Thalia sat forward. "Wait a minute. No subway at all?"
Now, I knew nothing about D.C., but I didn't see how their whole subway system could be less than twelve years old. I guess everyone else was thinking the same thing, because they looked pretty confused.
"Bianca," Zoe said. "How long ago…" Her voice faltered. The sound of the helicopter was getting louder again.
"We need to change trains," I said. "Next station."
Over the next half hour, all we thought about was getting away safely. We changed trains twice. I had no idea where we were going, but after a while we lost the helicopter.
Unfortunately, when we finally got off the train we found ourselves at the end of the line, in an industrial area with nothing but warehouses and railway tracks. And snow. Lots of snow. It seemed much colder here. I was glad for my new lion's fur coat.
We wandered through the railway yard, thinking there might be another passenger train somewhere, but there were just rows and rows of freight cars, most of which were covered in snow, like they hadn't moved in years.
A homeless guy was standing at a trash-can fire. We must've looked pretty pathetic, because he gave us a toothless grin and said, "Y'all need to get warmed up? Come on over!'
We huddled around his fire, Thalia's teeth were chattering. She said, "Well this is g-g-g-great."
"My hooves are frozen," Grover complained.
"Feet," I corrected, for the sake of the homeless guy.
"Maybe we should contact camp," Bianca said. "Chiron—"
"No," Zoe said. "They cannot help us anymore. We must finish this quest ourselves."
I gazed miserably around the rail yard. Somewhere, far to the west, Annabeth was in danger. Artemis was in chains. A doomsday monster was on the loose. And we were stuck on the outskirts of D.C., sharing a homeless persons fire.
"You know," the homeless man said, "you're never completely without friends." His face was grimy and his beard tangled, but his expression seemed kindly. "You kids need a train going west?"
"Yes, sir," I said. "You know of any?"
He pointed one greasy hand.
Suddenly I noticed a freight train, gleaming and free of snow. It was one of those automobile-carrier trains, with steel mesh curtains and a triple-deck of cars inside. The side of the freight train said SUN WEST LINE.
"That's… convenient," Thalia said. "Thanks, uh…"
She turned to the homeless guy, but he was gone. The trash can in front of us was cold and empty, as if he'd taken the flames with him.
An hour later we were rumbling west. There was no problem about who would drive now, because we all got our own luxury car. Zoe and Bianca were crashed out in a Lexus on the top deck. Grover was playing race car driver behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. And Thalia had hot-wired the radio in a black Mercedes SLK so she could pick up the alt-rock stations from D.C.
"Join you?" I asked her.
She shrugged, so I climbed into the shotgun seat.
The radio was playing the White Stripes. I knew the song because it was one of the only CDs I owned that my mom liked. She said it reminded her of Led Zeppelin. Thinking about my mom made me sad, because it didn't seem likely I'd be home for Christmas. I might not live that long.