A shudder ran through her body.
"Zoe—" I said.
"Stars," she whispered. "I can see the stars again, my lady."
A tear trickled down Artemis's cheek. "Yes, my brave one. They are beautiful tonight."
"Stars," Zoe repeated. Her eyes fixed on the night sky. And she did not move again.
Thalia lowered her head. Annabeth gulped down a sob, and her father put his hands on her shoulders. I watched as Artemis cupped her hand above Zoe's mouth and spoke a few words in Ancient Greek. A silvery wisp of smoke exhaled from Zoe's lips and was caught in the hand of the goddess. Zoe's body shimmered and disappeared.
Artemis stood, said a kind of blessing, breathed into her cupped hand and released the silver dust to the sky. It flew up, sparkling, and vanished.
For a moment I didn't see anything different. Then Annabeth gasped. Looking up in the sky, I saw that the stars were brighter now. They made a pattern I had never noticed before—a gleaming constellation that looked a lot like a girl's figure—a girl with a bow, running across the sky.
"Let the world honor you, my Huntress," Artemis said. "Live forever in the stars."
It wasn't easy saying our good-byes. The thunder and lightning were still boiling over Mount Tamalpais in the north. Artemis was so upset she flickered with silver light. This made me nervous, because if she suddenly lost control and appeared in her fully divine form, we would disintegrate by looking at her.
"I must go to Olympus immediately," Artemis said. "I will not be able to take you, but I will send help."
The goddess set her hand on Annabeth's shoulder. "You are brave beyond measure, my girl. You will do what is right."
Then she looked quizzically at Thalia, as if she weren't sure what to make of this younger daughter of Zeus. Thalia seemed reluctant to look up, but something made her, and she held the goddess's eyes. I wasn't sure what passed between them, but Artemis's gaze softened with sympathy. Then she turned to me.
"You did well," she said. "For a man."
I wanted to protest. But then I realized it was the first time she hadn't called me a boy.
She mounted her chariot, which began to glow. We averted our eyes. There was a flash of silver, and the goddess was gone.
"Well," Dr. Chase sighed. "She was impressive; though I must say I still prefer Athena."
Annabeth turned toward him. "Dad, I… I'm sorry that—"
"Shh." He hugged her. "Do what you must, my dear. I know this isn't easy for you."
His voice was a little shaky, but he gave Annabeth a brave smile.
Then I heard the whoosh of large wings. Three pegasi descended through the fog: two white winged horses and one pure black one.
"Blackjack!" I called.
Yo,boss! he called. You manage to stay alive okay without me?
"It was rough," I admitted.
I brought Guido and Porkpie with me.
How ya doin? The other two pegasi spoke in my mind.
Blackjack looked me over with concern, then checked out Dr. Chase, Thalia, and Annabeth. Any of these goons you want us to stampede?
"Nah," I said aloud. "These are my friends. We need to get to Olympus pretty fast."
No problem, Blackjack said. Except for the mortal over there. Hope he's not going.
I assured him Dr. Chase was not. The professor was staring openmouthed at the pegasi.
"Fascinating," he said. "Such maneuverability! How does the wingspan compensate for the weight of the horse's body, I wonder?"
Blackjack cocked his head. Whaaaat?
"Why, if the British had had these pegasi in the cavalry charges on the Crimea," Dr. Chase said, "the charge of the light brigade—"
"Dad!" Annabeth interrupted.
Dr. Chase blinked. He looked at his daughter and managed a smile. "I'm sorry, my dear, I know you must go."
He gave her one last awkward, well-meaning hug. As she turned to climb aboard the pegasus Guido, Dr. Chase called, "Annabeth. I know… I know San Francisco is a dangerous place for you. But please remember, you always have a home with us. We will keep you safe."
Annabeth didn't answer, but her eyes were red as she turned away. Dr. Chase started to say more, then apparently thought better of it. He raised his hand in a sad farewell and trudged away across the dark field.
Thalia and Annabeth and I mounted our pegasi. Together we soared over the bay and flew toward the eastern hills. Soon San Francisco was only a glittering crescent behind us, with an occasional flicker of lightning in the north.
Thalia was so exhausted she fell asleep on Porkpie's back. I knew she had to be really tired to sleep in the air, despite her fear of heights, but she didn't have much to worry about. Her pegasus flew with ease, adjusting himself every once in a while so Thalia stayed safely on his back.
Annabeth and I flew along side by side.
"Your dad seems cool," I told her.
It was too dark to see her expression. She looked back, even though California was far behind us now.
"I guess so," she said. "We've been arguing for so many years."
"Yeah, you said."
"You think I was lying about that?" It sounded like a challenge, but a pretty halfhearted one, like she was asking it of herself.
"I didn't say you were lying. It's just… he seems okay. Your stepmom, too. Maybe they've, uh, gotten cooler since you saw them last."
She hesitated. "They're still in San Francisco, Percy. I can't live so far from camp."
I didn't want to ask my next question. I was scared to know the answer. But I asked it anyway. "So what are you going to do now?"
We flew over a town, an island of lights in the middle of the dark. It whisked by so fast we might've been in an airplane.
"I don't know," she admitted. "But thank you for rescuing me."
"Hey, no big deal. We're friends."
"You didn't believe I was dead?"
She hesitated. "Neither is Luke, you know. I mean… he isn't dead."
I stared at her. I didn't know if she was cracking under the stress or what. "Annabeth, that fall was pretty bad. There's no way—"
"He isn't dead," she insisted. "I know it. The same way you knew about me."
That comparison didn't make me too happy.
The towns were zipping by faster now, islands of light thicker together, until the whole landscape below was a glittering carpet. Dawn was close. The eastern sky was turning gray. And up ahead, a huge white-and-yellow glow spread out before us—the lights of New York.
How's that for speedy, loss? Blackjack bragged. We get extra hay for breakfast or what?
"You're the man, Blackjack," I told him. "Er, the horse, I mean."
"You don't believe me about Luke," Annabeth said, "but we'll see him again. He's in trouble, Percy. He's under Kronos's spell."
I didn't feel like arguing, though it made me mad. How could she still have any feelings for that creep? How could she possibly make excuses for him? He deserved that fall. He deserved… okay, I'll say it. He deserved to die. Unlike Bianca. Unlike Zoe. Luke couldn't be alive. It wouldn't be fair.
"There it is." Thalia's voice; she'd woken up. She was pointing toward Manhattan, which was quickly zooming into view. "It's started."
"What's started?" I asked.
Then I looked where she was pointing. High above the Empire State Building, Olympus was its own island of light, a floating mountain ablaze with torches and braziers, white marble palaces gleaming in the early morning air.
"The winter solstice," Thalia said. "The Council of the Gods."
THE GODS VOTE HOW TO KILL US
Flying was bad enough for a son of Poseidon, but flying straight up to Zeus's palace, with thunder and lightning swirling around it, was even worse.
We circled over midtown Manhattan, making one complete orbit around Mount Olympus. I'd only been there once before, traveling by elevator up to the secret six hundredth floor of the Empire State Building. This time, if it was possible, Olympus amazed me even more.
In the early-morning darkness, torches and fires made the mountainside palaces glow twenty different colors, from bloodred to indigo. Apparently no one ever slept on Olympus. The twisting streets were full of demigods and nature spirits and minor godlings bustling about, riding chariots or sedan chairs carried by Cyclopes. Winter didn't seem to exist here. I caught the scent of the gardens in full bloom, jasmine and roses and even sweeter things I couldn't name. Music drifted up from many windows, the soft sounds of lyres and reed pipes.
Towering at the peak of the mountain was the greatest palace of all, the glowing white hall of the gods.
Our pegasi set us down in the outer courtyard, in front of huge silver gates. Before I could even think to knock, the gates opened by themselves.
Good luck, boss, Blackjack said.
"Yeah." I didn't know why, but I had a sense of doom. I'd never seen all the gods together. I knew any one of them could blast me to dust, and a few of them would like to.
Hey, if ya don't come back, can I have your cabin for my stable?
I looked at the pegasus.
Just a thought, he said. Sorry.
Blackjack and his friends flew off, leaving Thalia, Annabeth, and me alone. For a minute we stood there regarding the palace, the way we'd stood together in front of Westover Hall, what seemed like a million years ago.
And then, side by side, we walked into the throne room.
Twelve enormous thrones made a U around a central hearth, just like the placement of the cabins at camp. The ceiling above glittered with constellations—even the newest one, Zoe the Huntress, making her way across the heavens with her bow drawn.
All of the seats were occupied. Each god and goddess was about fifteen feet tall, and I'm telling you, if you've ever had a dozen all-powerful super-huge beings turn their eyes on you at once… Well, suddenly, facing monsters seemed like a picnic.
"Welcome, heroes," Artemis said.
That's when I noticed Bessie and Grover.
A sphere of water was hovering in the center of the room, next to the hearth fire. Bessie was swimming happily around, swishing his serpent tail and poking his head out the sides and bottom of the sphere. He seemed to be enjoying the novelty of swimming in a magic bubble. Grover was kneeling at Zeus's throne, as if he'd just been giving a report, but when he saw us, he cried, "You made it!"
He started to run toward me, then remembered he was turning his back on Zeus, and looked for permission.
"Go on," Zeus said. But he wasn't really paying attention to Grover. The lord of the sky was staring intently at Thalia.
Grover trotted over. None of the gods spoke. Every clop of Grover's hooves echoed on the marble floor. Bessie splashed in his bubble of water. The hearth fire crackled.
I looked nervously at my father, Poseidon. He was dressed similar to the last time I'd seen him: beach shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sandals. He had a weathered, suntanned face with a dark beard and deep green eyes. I wasn't sure how he would feel about seeing me again, but the corners of his eyes crinkled with smile lines. He nodded as if to say It's okay.
Grover gave Annabeth and Thalia big hugs. Then he grasped my arms. "Percy, Bessie and I made it! But you have to convince them! They can't do it!"