My vision turned fuzzy. Everything was tinged with red. I caught glimpses of the battle, but I wasn't sure if I was seeing clearly. There was Atlas in full battle armor, jabbing with his javelin, laughing insanely as he fought. And Artemis, a blur of silver. She had two wicked hunting knives, each as long as her arm, and she slashed wildly at the Titan, dodging and leaping with unbelievable grace. She seemed to change form as she maneuvered. She was a tiger, a gazelle, a bear, a falcon. Or perhaps that was just my fevered brain. Zoe shot arrows at her father, aiming for the chinks in his armor. He roared in pain each time one found its mark, but they affected him like bee stings. He just got madder and kept fighting.
Thalia and Luke went spear on sword, lightning still flashing around them. Thalia pressed Luke back with the aura of her shield. Even he was not immune to it. He retreated, wincing and growling in frustration.
"Yield!" Thalia yelled. "You never could beat me, Luke."
He bared his teeth. "Well see, my old friend."
Sweat poured down my face. My hands were slippery. My shoulders would've screamed with agony if they could. I felt like the vertebrae in my spine were being welded together by a blowtorch.
Atlas advanced, pressing Artemis. She was fast, but his strength was unstoppable. His javelin slammed into the earth where Artemis had been a split second before, and a fissure opened in the rocks. He leaped over it and kept pursuing her. She was leading him back toward me.
Get ready, she spoke in my mind.
I was losing the ability to think through the pain. My response was something like Agggghh-owwwwwwww.
"You fight well for a girl." Atlas laughed. "But you are no match for me."
He feinted with the tip of his javelin and Artemis dodged. I saw the trick coming. Atlas's javelin swept around and knocked Artemis's legs off the ground. She fell, and Atlas brought up his javelin tip for the kill.
"No!" Zoe screamed. She leaped between her father and Artemis and shot an arrow straight into the Titan's forehead, where it lodged like a unicorn's horn. Atlas bellowed in rage. He swept aside his daughter with the back of his hand, sending her flying into the black rocks.
I wanted to shout her name, run to her aid, but I couldn't speak or move. I couldn't even see where Zoe had landed. Then Atlas turned on Artemis with a look of triumph in his face. Artemis seemed to be wounded. She didn't get up.
"The first blood in a new war," Atlas gloated. And he stabbed downward.
As fast as thought, Artemis grabbed his javelin shaft. It hit the earth right next to her and she pulled backward, using the javelin like a lever, kicking the Titan Lord and sending him flying over her, I saw him coming down on top of me and I realized what would happen. I loosened my grip on the sky, and as Atlas slammed into me I didn't try to hold on. I let myself be pushed out of the way and rolled for all I was worth.
The weight of the sky dropped onto Atlas's back, almost smashing him flat until he managed to get to his knees, struggling to get out from under the crushing weight of the sky. But it was too late.
"Noooooo!" He bellowed so hard it shook the mountain. "Not again!"
Atlas was trapped under his old burden.
I tried to stand and fell back again, dazed from pain. My body felt like it was burning up.
Thalia backed Luke to the edge of a cliff, but still they fought on, next to the golden coffin. Thalia had tears in her eyes. Luke had a bloody slash across his chest and his pale face glistened with sweat.
He lunged at Thalia and she slammed him with her shield. Luke's sword spun out of his hands and clattered to the rocks. Thalia put her spear point to his throat.
For a moment, there was silence.
"Well?" Luke asked. He tried to hide it, but I could hear fear in his voice.
Thalia trembled with fury.
Behind her, Annabeth came scrambling, finally free from her bonds. Her face was bruised and streaked with dirt. "Don't kill him!"
"He's a traitor," Thalia said. "A traitor!"
In my daze, I realized that Artemis was no longer with me. She had run off toward the black rocks where Zoe had fallen.
"We'll bring Luke back," Annabeth pleaded. "To Olympus. He… he'll be useful."
"Is that what you want, Thalia?" Luke sneered. "To go back to Olympus in triumph? To please your dad?"
Thalia hesitated, and Luke made a desperate grab for her spear.
"No!" Annabeth shouted. But it was too late. Without thinking, Thalia kicked Luke away. He lost his balance, terror on his face, and then he fell.
"Luke!" Annabeth screamed.
We rushed to the cliff's edge. Below us, the army from the Princess Andromeda had stopped in amazement. They were staring at Luke's broken form on the rocks. Despite how much I hated him, I couldn't stand to see it. I wanted to believe he was still alive, but that was impossible. The fall was fifty feet at least, and he wasn't moving.
One of the giants looked up and growled, "Kill them!"
Thalia was stiff with grief, tears streaming down her cheeks. I pulled her back as a wave of javelins sailed over our heads. We ran for the rocks, ignoring the curses and threats of Atlas as we passed.
"Artemis!" I yelled.
The goddess looked up, her face almost as grief-stricken as Thalia's. Zoe lay in the goddess's arms. She was breathing. Her eyes were open. But still…
"The wound is poisoned," Artemis said.
"Atlas poisoned her?" I asked.
"No," the goddess said. "Not Atlas."
She showed us the wound in Zoe's side. I'd almost forgotten her scrape with Ladon the dragon. The bite was much worse than Zoe had let on. I could barely look at the wound. She had charged into battle against her father with a horrible cut already sapping her strength.
"The stars," Zoe murmured. "I cannot see them."
"Nectar and ambrosia," I said. "Come on! We have to get her some."
No one moved. Grief hung in air. The army of Kronos was just below the rise. Even Artemis was too shocked to stir. We might've met our doom right there, but then I heard a strange buzzing noise.
Just as the army of monsters came over the hill, a Sopwith Camel swooped down out of the sky.
"Get away from my daughter!" Dr. Chase called down, and his machine guns burst to life, peppering the ground with bullet holes and startling the whole group of monsters into scattering.
"Dad?" yelled Annabeth in disbelief.
"Run!" he called back, his voice growing fainter as the biplane swooped by.
This shook Artemis out of her grief. She stared up at the antique plane, which was now banking around for another strafe.
"A brave man," Artemis said with grudging approval. "Come, We must get Zoe away from here."
She raised her hunting horn to her lips, and its clear sound echoed down the valleys of Marin. Zoe's eyes were fluttering.
"Hang in there!" I told her. "It'll be all right!"
The Sopwith Camel swooped down again. A few giants threw javelins, and one flew straight between the wings of the plane, but the machine guns blazed. I realized with amazement that somehow Dr. Chase must've gotten hold of celestial bronze to fashion his bullets. The first row of snake women wailed as the machine gun's volley blew them into sulfurous yellow powder.
"That's… my dad!" Annabeth said in amazement.
We didn't have time to admire his flying. The giants and snake women were already recovering from their surprise. Dr. Chase would be in trouble soon.
Just then, the moonlight brightened, and a silver chariot appeared from the sky, drawn by the most beautiful deer I had ever seen. It landed right next to us.
"Get in," Artemis said.
Annabeth helped me get Thalia on board. Then I helped Artemis with Zoe. We wrapped Zoe in a blanket as Artemis pulled the reins and the chariot sped away from the mountain, straight into the air.
"Like Santa Claus's sleigh," I murmured, still dazed with pain.
Artemis took time to look back at me. "Indeed, young half-blood. And where do you think that legend came from?"
Seeing us safely away, Dr. Chase turned his biplane and followed us like an honor guard. It must have been one of the strangest sights ever, even for the Bay Area: a silver flying chariot pulled by deer, escorted by a Sopwith Camel.
Behind us, the army of Kronos roared in anger as they gathered on the summit of Mount Tamalpais, but the loudest sound was the voice of Atlas, bellowing curses against the gods as he struggled under the weight of the sky.
A FRIEND SAYS GOOD-BYE
We landed at Crissy Field after nightfall.
As soon as Dr. Chase stepped out of his Sopwith Camel, Annabeth ran to him and gave him a huge hug. "Dad! You flew… you shot… oh my gods! That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!"
Her father blushed. "Well, not bad for a middle-aged mortal, I suppose."
"But the celestial bronze bullets! How did you get those?"
"Ah, well. You did leave quite a few half-blood weapons in your room in Virginia, the last time you… left."
Annabeth looked down, embarrassed. I noticed Dr. Chase was very careful not to say ran away.
"I decided to try melting some down to make bullet casings," he continued. "Just a little experiment."
He said it like it was no big deal, but he had a gleam in his eye. I could understand all of a sudden why Athena, Goddess of Crafts and Wisdom, had taken a liking to him. He was an excellent mad scientist at heart.
"Dad…" Annabeth faltered.
"Annabeth, Percy," Thalia interrupted. Her voice was urgent. She and Artemis were kneeling at Zoe's side, binding the huntress's wounds.
Annabeth and I ran over to help, but there wasn't much we could do. We had no ambrosia or nectar. No regular medicine would help. It was dark, but I could see that Zoe didn't look good. She was shivering, and the faint glow that usually hung around her was fading.
"Can't you heal her with magic?" I asked Artemis. "I mean… you're a goddess."
Artemis looked troubled. "Life is a fragile thing, Percy. If the Fates will the string to be cut, there is little I can do. But I can try."
She tried to set her hand on Zoe's side, but Zoe gripped her wrist. She looked into the goddess's eyes, and some kind of understanding passed between them.
"Have I… served thee well?" Zoe whispered.
"With great honor," Artemis said softly. "The finest of my attendants."
Zoe's face relaxed. "Rest. At last."
"I can try to heal the poison, my brave one."
But in that moment, I knew it wasn't just the poison that was killing her. It was her father's final blow. Zoe had known all along that the Oracle's prophecy was about her: she would die by a parent's hand. And yet she'd taken the quest anyway. She had chosen to save me, and Atlas's fury had broken her inside.
She saw Thalia, and took her hand.
"I am sorry we argued," Zoe said. "We could have been sisters."
"It's my fault," Thalia said, blinking hard. "You were right about Luke, about heroes, men—everything."
"Perhaps not all men," Zoe murmured. She smiled weakly at me. "Do you still have the sword, Percy?"
I couldn't speak, but I brought out Riptide and put the pen in her hand. She grasped it contentedly. "You spoke the truth, Percy Jackson. You are nothing like… like Hercules. I am honored that you carry this sword."