"Do what?" I asked.
"Heroes," Artemis called.
The goddess slid down from her throne and turned to human size, a young auburn-haired girl, perfectly at ease in the midst of the giant Olympians. She walked toward us, her silver robes shimmering. There was no emotion in her face. She seemed to walk in a column of moonlight.
"The Council has been informed of your deeds," Artemis told us. "They know that Mount Othrys is rising in the West. They know of Atlas's attempt for freedom, and the gathering armies of Kronos. We have voted to act."
There was some mumbling and shuffling among the gods, as if they weren't all happy with this plan, but nobody protested.
"At my Lord Zeus's command," Artemis said, "my brother Apollo and I shall hunt the most powerful monsters, seeking to strike them down before they can join the Titans' cause. Lady Athena shall personally check on the other Titans to make sure they do not escape their various prisons. Lord Poseidon has been given permission to unleash his full fury on the cruise ship Princess Andromeda and send it to the bottom of the sea. And as for you, my heroes…"
She turned to face the other immortals. "These half-bloods have done Olympus a great service. Would any here deny that?"
She looked around at the assembled gods, meeting their faces individually. Zeus in his dark pin-striped suit, his black beard neatly trimmed, and his eyes sparking with energy. Next to him sat a beautiful woman with silver hair braided over one shoulder and a dress that shimmered colors like peacock feathers. The Lady Hera.
On Zeus's right, my father Poseidon. Next to him, a huge lump of a man with a leg in a steel brace, a misshapen head, and a wild brown beard, fire flickering through his whiskers. The Lord of the Forges, Hephaestus.
Hermes winked at me. He was wearing a business suit today, checking messages on his caduceus mobile phone. Apollo leaned back in his golden throne with his shades on. He had iPod headphones on, so I wasn't sure he was even listening, but he gave me a thumbs-up. Dionysus looked bored, twirling a grape vine between his fingers. And Ares, well, he sat on his chrome-and-leather throne, glowering at me while he sharpened a knife.
On the ladies' side of the throne room, a dark-haired goddess in green robes sat next to Hera on a throne woven of apple-tree branches. Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest. Next to her sat a beautiful gray-eyed woman in an elegant white dress. She could only be Annabeth's mother, Athena. Then there was Aphrodite, who smiled at me knowingly and made me blush in spite of myself.
All the Olympians in one place. So much power in this room it was a miracle the whole palace didn't blow apart.
"I gotta say"—Apollo broke the silence—"these kids did okay." He cleared his throat and began to recite: "Heroes win laurels—"
"Um, yes, first class," Hermes interrupted, like he was anxious to avoid Apollo's poetry. "All in favor of not disintegrating them?"
A few tentative hands went up—Demeter, Aphrodite.
"Wait just a minute," Ares growled. He pointed at Thalia and me. "These two are dangerous. It'd be much safer, while we've got them here—"
"Ares," Poseidon interrupted, "they are worthy heroes. We will not blast my son to bits."
"Nor my daughter," Zeus grumbled. "She has done well."
Thalia blushed. She studied the floor. I knew how she felt. I'd hardly ever talked to my father, much less gotten a compliment.
The goddess Athena cleared her throat and sat forward. "I am proud of my daughter as well. But there is a security risk here with the other two."
"Mother!" Annabeth said. "How can you—"
Athena cut her off with a calm but firm look. "It is unfortunate that my father, Zeus, and my uncle, Poseidon, chose to break their oath not to have more children. Only Hades kept his word, a fact that I find ironic. As we know from the Great Prophecy, children of the three elder gods… such as Thalia and Percy… are dangerous. As thickheaded as he is, Ares has a point."
"Right!" Ares said. "Hey, wait a minute. Who you callin'—"
He started to get up, but a grape vine grew around his waist like a seat belt and pulled him back down.
"Oh, please, Ares," Dionysus sighed. "Save the fighting for later."
Ares cursed and ripped away the vine. "You're one to talk, you old drunk. You seriously want to protect these brats?"
Dionysus gazed down at us wearily. "I have no love for them. Athena, do you truly think it safest to destroy them?"
"I do not pass judgment," Athena said. "I only point out the risk. What we do, the Council must decide."
"I will not have them punished," Artemis said. "I will have them rewarded. If we destroy heroes who do us a great favor, then we are no better than the Titans. If this is Olympian justice, I will have none of it."
"Calm down, sis," Apollo said. "Jeez, you need to lighten up."
"Don't call me sis! I will reward them."
"Well," Zeus grumbled. "Perhaps. But the monster at least must be destroyed. We have agreement on that?"
A lot of nodding heads.
It took me a second to realize what they were saying. Then my heart turned to lead. "Bessie? You want to destroy Bessie?"
"Mooooooo!" Bessie protested.
My father frowned. "You have named the Ophiotaurus Bessie?"
"Dad," I said, "he's just a sea creature. A really nice sea creature. You can't destroy him."
Poseidon shifted uncomfortably. "Percy, the monster's power is considerable. If the Titans were to steal it, or—"
"You can't," I insisted. I looked at Zeus. I probably should have been afraid of him, but I stared him right in the eye. "Controlling the prophecies never works. Isn't that true? Besides, Bess—the Ophiotaurus is innocent. Killing something like that is wrong. It's just as wrong as… as Kronos eating his children, just because of something they might do. It's wrong!"
Zeus seemed to consider this. His eyes drifted to his daughter Thalia. "And what of the risk? Kronos knows full well, if one of you were to sacrifice the beast's entrails, you would have the power to destroy us. Do you think we can let that possibility remain? You, my daughter, will turn sixteen on the morrow, just as the prophecy says."
"You have to trust them," Annabeth spoke up. "Sir, you have to trust them."
Zeus scowled. "Trust a hero?"
"Annabeth is right," Artemis said. "Which is why I must first make a reward. My faithful companion, Zoe Nightshade, has passed into the stars. I must have a new lieutenant. And I intend to choose one. But first, Father Zeus, I must speak to you privately."
Zeus beckoned Artemis forward. He leaned down and listened as she spoke in his ear.
A feeling of panic seized me. "Annabeth," I said under my breath. "Don't."
She frowned at me. "What?"
"Look, I need to tell you something," I continued. The words came stumbling out of me. "I couldn't stand it if… I don't want you to—"
"Percy?" she said. "You look like you're going to be sick."
And that's how I felt. I wanted to say more, but my tongue betrayed me. It wouldn't move because of the fear in my stomach. And then Artemis turned.
"I shall have a new lieutenant," she announced. "If she will accept it."
"No," I murmured.
"Thalia," Artemis said. "Daughter of Zeus. Will you join the Hunt?"
Stunned silence filled the room. I stared at Thalia, unable to believe what I was hearing. Annabeth smiled. She squeezed Thalia's hand and let it go, as if she'd been expecting this all along.
"I will," Thalia said firmly.
Zeus rose, his eyes full of concern. "My daughter, consider well—"
"Father," she said. "I will not turn sixteen tomorrow. I will never turn sixteen. I won't let this prophecy be mine. I stand with my sister Artemis. Kronos will never tempt me again."
She knelt before the goddess and began the words I remembered from Bianca's oath, what seemed like so long ago. "I pledge myself to the goddess Artemis. I turn my back on the company of men…"
Afterward, Thalia did something that surprised me almost as much as the pledge. She came over to me, smiled, and in front of the whole assembly, she gave me a big hug.
When she pulled away and gripped my shoulders, I said, "Um… aren't you supposed to not do that anymore? Hug boys, I mean?"
"I'm honoring a friend," she corrected. "I must join the Hunt, Percy. I haven't known peace since… since Half-Blood Hill. I finally feel like I have a home. But you're a hero. You will be the one of the prophecy."
"Great," I muttered.
"I'm proud to be your friend."
She hugged Annabeth, who was trying hard not to cry. Then she even hugged Grover, who looked ready to pass out, like somebody had just given him an all-you-can-eat enchilada coupon.
Then Thalia went to stand by Artemis's side.
"Now for the Ophiotaurus," Artemis said.
"This boy is still dangerous," Dionysus warned. "The beast is a temptation to great power. Even if we spare the boy—"
"No." I looked around at all the gods. "Please. Keep the Ophiotaurus safe. My dad can hide him under the sea somewhere, or keep him in an aquarium here in Olympus. But you have to protect him."
"And why should we trust you?" rumbled Hephaestus.
"I'm only fourteen," I said. "If this prophecy is about me, that's two more years."
"Two years for Kronos to deceive you," Athena said. "Much can change in two years, my young hero."
"Mother!" Annabeth said, exasperated.
"It is only the truth, child. It is bad strategy to keep the animal alive. Or the boy."
My father stood. "I will not have a sea creature destroyed, if I can help it. And I can help it."
He held out his hand, and a trident appeared in it: a twenty foot long bronze shaft with three spear tips that shimmered with blue, watery light. "I will vouch for the boy and the safety of the Ophiotaurus."
"You won't take it under the sea!" Zeus stood suddenly. "I won't have that kind of bargaining chip in your possession."
"Brother, please," Poseidon sighed.
Zeus's lightning bolt appeared in his hand, a shaft of electricity that filled the whole room with the smell of ozone.
"Fine," Poseidon said. "I will build an aquarium for the creature here. Hephaestus can help me. The creature will be safe. We shall protect it with all our powers. The boy will not betray us. I vouch for this on my honor."
Zeus thought about this. "All in favor?"
To my surprise, a lot of hands went up. Dionysus abstained. So did Ares and Athena. But everybody else…
"We have a majority," Zeus decreed. "And so, since we will not be destroying these heroes… I imagine we should honor them. Let the triumph celebration begin!"
There are parties, and then there are huge, major, blowout parties. And then there are Olympian parties. If you ever get a choice, go for the Olympian.