"Wait a second, I never said—"
"Oh, my dear. You don't need to say it. You do know Annabeth was close to joining the Hunters, don't you?"
I blushed. "I wasn't sure—"
"She was about to throw her life away! And you, my dear, you can save her from that. It's so romantic!"
"Oh, put the mirror down," Aphrodite ordered. "I look fine."
I hadn't realized I was still holding it, but as soon as I put it down, I noticed my arms were sore.
"Now listen, Percy," Aphrodite said. "The Hunters are your enemies. Forget them and Artemis and the monster. That's not important. You just concentrate on finding and saving Annabeth."
"Do you know where she is?"
Aphrodite waved her hand irritably. "No, no. I leave the details to you. But it's been ages since we've had a good tragic love story."
"Whoa, first of all, I never said anything about love. And second, what's up with tragic!"
"Love conquers all," Aphrodite promised. "Look at Helen and Paris. Did they let anything come between them?"
"Didn't they start the Trojan War and get thousands of people killed?"
"Pfft. That's not the point. Follow your heart."
"But… I don't know where it's going. My heart, I mean."
She smiled sympathetically. She really was beautiful. And not just because she had a pretty face or anything. She believed in love so much, it was impossible not to feel giddy when she talked about it.
"Not knowing is half the fun," Aphrodite said. "Exquisitely painful, isn't it? Not being sure who you love and who loves you? Oh, you kids! It's so cute I'm going to cry."
"No, no," I said. "Don't do that."
"And don't worry," she said. "I'm not going to let this be easy and boring for you. No, I have some wonderful surprises in store. Anguish. Indecision. Oh, you just wait."
"That's really okay," I told her. "Don't go to any trouble."
"You're so cute. I wish all my daughters could break the heart of a boy as nice as you." Aphrodite's eyes were tearing up. "Now, you'd better go. And do be careful in my husband's territory, Percy. Don't take anything. He is awfully fussy about his trinkets and trash."
"What?" I asked. "You mean Hephaestus?"
But the car door opened and Ares grabbed my shoulder, pulling me out of the car and back into the desert night.
My audience with the goddess of love was over.
"You're lucky, punk." Ares pushed me away from the limo. "Be grateful."
"That we're being so nice. If it was up to me—"
"So why haven't you killed me?" I shot back. It was a stupid thing to say to the god of war, but being around him always made me feel angry and reckless.
Ares nodded, like I'd finally said something intelligent.
"I'd love to kill you, seriously," he said. "But see, I got a situation. Word on Olympus is that you might start the biggest war in history. I can't risk messing that up. Besides, Aphrodite thinks you're some kinda soap-opera star or something. I kill you, that makes me look bad with her. But don't worry. I haven't forgotten my promise. Some day soon, kid—real soon—you're going to raise your sword to fight, and you're going to remember the wrath of Ares."
I balled my fists. "Why wait? I beat you once. How's that ankle healing up?"
He grinned crookedly. "Not bad, punk. But you got nothing on the master of taunts. I'll start the fight when I'm good and ready. Until then… Get lost."
He snapped his fingers and the world did a three-sixty, spinning in a cloud of red dust. I fell to the ground.
When I stood up again, the limousine was gone. The road, the taco restaurant, the whole town of Gila Claw was gone. My friends and I were standing in the middle of the junkyard, mountains of scrap metal stretched out in every direction.
"What did she want with you?" Bianca asked, once I'd told them about Aphrodite.
"Oh, uh, not sure," I lied. "She said to be careful in her husband's junkyard. She said not to pick anything up."
Zoe narrowed her eyes. "The goddess of love would not make a special trip to tell thee that. Be careful, Percy. Aphrodite has led many heroes astray."
"For once I agree with Zoe," Thalia said. "You can't trust Aphrodite."
Grover was looking at me funny. Being empathic and all, he could usually read my emotions, and I got the feeling he knew exactly what Aphrodite had talked to me about.
"So," I said, anxious to change the subject, "how do we get out of here?"
"That way," Zoe said. "That is west."
"How can you tell?"
In the light of the full moon, I was surprised how well I could see her roll her eyes at me. "Ursa Major is in the north," she said, "which means that must be west."
She pointed west, then at the northern constellation, which was hard to make out because there were so many other stars.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "The bear thing."
Zoe looked offended. "Show some respect. It was a fine bear. A worthy opponent."
"You act like it was real."
"Guys," Grover broke in. "Look!"
We'd reached the crest of a junk mountain. Piles of metal objects glinted in the moonlight: broken heads of bronze horses, metal legs from human statues, smashed chariots, tons of shields and swords and other weapons, along with more modern stuff, like cars that gleamed gold and silver, refrigerators, washing machines, and computer monitors.
"Whoa," Bianca said. "That stuff… some of it looks like real gold."
"It is," Thalia said grimly. "Like Percy said, don't touch anything. This is the junkyard of the gods."
"Junk?" Grover picked up a beautiful crown made of gold, silver, and jewels. It was broken on one side, as if it had been split by an axe. "You call this junk?"
He bit off a point and began to chew. "It's delicious!"
Thalia swatted the crown out of his hands. "I'm serious!"
"Look!" Bianca said. She raced down the hill, tripping over bronze coils and golden plates. She picked up a bow that glowed silver in moonlight. "A Hunter's bow!"
She yelped in surprise as the bow began to shrink, and became a hair clip shaped like a crescent moon. "It's just like Percys sword!"
Zoe's face was grim. "Leave it, Bianca."
"It is here for a reason. Anything thrown away in this junkyard must stay in this yard. It is defective. Or cursed."
Bianca reluctantly set the hair clip down.
"I don't like this place," Thalia said. She gripped the shaft of her spear.
"You think we're going to get attacked by killer refrigerators?" I asked.
She gave me a hard look. "Zoe is right, Percy. Things get thrown away here for a reason. Now come on, let's get across the yard."
"That's the second time you've agreed with Zoe," I muttered, but Thalia ignored me.
We started picking our way through the hills and valleys of junk. The stuff seemed to go on forever, and if it hadn't been for Ursa Major, we would've gotten lost. All the hills pretty much looked the same.
I'd like to say we left the stuff alone, but there was too much cool junk not to check out some of it. I found an electric guitar shaped like Apollo's lyre that was so sweet I had to pick it up. Grover found a broken tree made out of metal. It had been chopped to pieces, but some of the branches still had golden birds in them, and they whirred around when Grover picked them up, trying to flap their wings.
Finally, we saw the edge of the junkyard about half a mile ahead of us, the lights of a highway stretching through the desert. But between us and the road…
"What is that?" Bianca gasped.
Ahead of us was a hill much bigger and longer than the others. It was like a metal mesa, the length of a football field and as tall as goalposts. At one end of the mesa was a row of ten thick metal columns, wedged tightly together.
Bianca frowned. "They look like—"
"Toes," Grover said.
Bianca nodded. "Really, really large toes."
Zoe and Thalia exchanged nervous looks.
"Let's go around," Thalia said. "Far around."
"But the road is right over there," I protested. "Quicker to climb over."
Thalia hefted her spear and Zoe drew her bow, but then I realized it was only Grover. He had thrown a piece of scrap metal at the toes and hit one, making a deep echo, as if the column were hollow.
"Why did you do that?" Zoe demanded.
Grover cringed. "I don't know. I, uh, don't like fake feet?"
"Come on." Thalia looked at me. "Around."
I didn't argue. The toes were starting to freak me out, too. I mean, who sculpts ten-foot-tall metal toes and sticks them in a junkyard?
After several minutes of walking, we finally stepped onto the highway, an abandoned but well-lit stretch of black asphalt.
"We made it out," Zoe said. "Thank the gods."
But apparently the gods didn't want to be thanked. At that moment, I heard a sound like a thousand trash compactors crushing metal.
I whirled around. Behind us, the scrap mountain was boiling, rising up. The ten toes tilted over, and I realized why they looked like toes. They were toes. The thing that rose up from the metal was a bronze giant in full Greek battle armor. He was impossibly tall—a skyscraper with legs and arms. He gleamed wickedly in the moonlight. He looked down at us, and his face was deformed. The left side was partially melted off. His joints creaked with rust, and across his armored chest, written in thick dust by some giant finger, were the words WASH ME.
"Talos!" Zoe gasped.
"Who—who's Talos?" I stuttered.
"One of Hephaestus's creations," Thalia said. "But that can't be the original. It's too small. A prototype, maybe. A defective model.
The metal giant didn't like the word defective.
He moved one hand to his sword belt and drew his weapon. The sound of it coming out of its sheath was horrible, metal screeching against metal. The blade was a hundred feet long, easy. It looked rusty and dull, but I didn't figure that mattered. Getting hit with that thing would be like getting hit with a battleship.
"Someone took something," Zoe said. "Who took something?"
She stared accusingly at me.
I shook my head. "I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a thief."
Bianca didn't say anything. I could swear she looked guilty, but I didn't have much time to think about it, because the giant defective Talos took one step toward us, closing half the distance and making the ground shake.
"Run!" Grover yelped.
Great advice, except that it was hopeless. At a leisurely stroll, this thing could outdistance us easily.
We split up, the way we'd done with the Nemean Lion. Thalia drew her shield and held it up as she ran down the highway. The giant swung his sword and took out a row of power lines, which exploded in sparks and scattered across Thalia's path.
Zoe's arrows whistled toward the creature's face but shattered harmlessly against the metal. Grover brayed like a baby goat and went climbing up a mountain of metal.