"It's okay," I lied. "Really. It's fine."
Grover's lower lip trembled. "I wasn't even thinking… I was so focused on helping Artemis. But I promise, I'll look everywhere for Annabeth. If I can find her, I will."
I nodded and tried to ignore the big crater that was opening in my chest.
"Grover," Chiron said, "perhaps you'd let me have a word with Percy?"
"Sure," he sniffled.
"Oh," Grover said. "You mean alone. Sure, Chiron." He looked at me miserably. "See? Nobody needs a goat."
He trotted out the door, blowing his nose on his sleeve.
Chiron sighed and knelt on his horse legs. "Percy, I don't pretend to understand prophecies."
"Yeah," I said. "Well, maybe that's because they don't make any sense."
Chiron gazed at the saltwater spring gurgling in the corner of the room. "Thalia would not have been my first choice to go on this quest. She's too impetuous. She acts without thinking. She is too sure of herself"
"Would you have chosen me?"
"Frankly, no," he said. "You and Thalia are much alike."
"Thanks a lot."
He smiled. "The difference is that you are less sure of yourself than Thalia. That could be good or bad. But one thing I can say: both of you together would be a dangerous thing."
"We could handle it."
"The way you handled it at the creek tonight?"
I didn't answer. He'd nailed me.
"Perhaps it is for the best," Chiron mused. "You can go home to your mother for the holidays. If we need you, we can call."
"Yeah," I said. "Maybe."
I pulled Riptide out of my pocket and set it on my nightstand. It didn't seem that I'd be using it for anything but writing Christmas cards.
When he saw the pen, Chiron grimaced. "It's no wonder Zoe doesn't want you along, I suppose. Not while you're carrying that particular weapon."
I didn't understand what he meant. Then I remembered something he'd told me a long time ago, when he first gave me the magic sword: It has a long and tragic history, which we need not go into.
I wanted to ask him about that, but then he pulled a golden drachma from his saddlebag and tossed it to me. "Call your mother, Percy. Let her know you're coming home in the morning. And, ah, for what it's worth… I almost volunteered for this quest myself. I would have gone, if not for the last line."
"One shall perish by a parent's hand. Yeah."
I didn't need to ask. I knew Chiron's dad was Kronos, the evil Titan Lord himself. The line would make perfect sense if Chiron went on the quest. Kronos didn't care for anyone, including his own children.
"Chiron," I said. "You know what this Titan's curse is, don't you?"
His face darkened. He made a claw over his heart and pushed outward—an ancient gesture for warding off evil. "Let us hope the prophecy does not mean what I think. Now, good night, Percy. And your time will come. I'm convinced of that. There's no need to rush."
He said your time the way people did when they meant your death. I didn't know if Chiron meant it that way, but the look in his eyes made me scared to ask.
I stood at the saltwater spring, rubbing Chiron's coin in my hand and trying to figure out what to say to my mom. I really wasn't in the mood to have one more adult tell me that doing nothing was the greatest thing I could do, but I figured my mom deserved an update.
Finally, I took a deep breath and threw in the coin. "O goddess, accept my offering."
The mist shimmered. The light from the bathroom was just enough to make a faint rainbow.
"Show me Sally Jackson," I said. "Upper East Side, Manhattan."
And there in the mist was a scene I did not expect. My mom was sitting at our kitchen table with some… guy. They were laughing hysterically. There was a big stack of textbooks between them. The man was, I don't know, thirty-something, with longish salt-and-pepper hair and a brown jacket over a black T-shirt. He looked like an actor—like a guy who might play an undercover cop on television.
I was too stunned to say anything, and fortunately, my mom and the guy were too busy laughing to notice my Iris-message.
The guy said, "Sally, you're a riot. You want some more wine?"
"Ah, I shouldn't. You go ahead if you want."
"Actually, I'd better use your bathroom. May I?"
"Down the hall," she said, trying not to laugh.
The actor dude smiled and got up and left.
"Mom!" I said.
She jumped so hard she almost knocked her textbooks off the table. Finally she focused on me. "Percy! Oh, honey! Is everything okay?"
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
She blinked. "Homework." Then she seemed to understand the look on my face. "Oh, honey, that's just Paul—um, Mr. Blofis. He's in my writing seminar."
"Blofis. He'll be back in a minute, Percy. Tell me what's wrong."
She always knew when something was wrong. I told her about Annabeth. The other stuff too, but mostly it boiled down to Annabeth.
My mother's eyes teared up. I could tell she was trying hard to keep it together for my sake. "Oh, Percy…"
"Yeah. So they tell me there's nothing I can do. I guess I'll be coming home."
She turned her pencil around in her fingers. "Percy, as much as I want you to come home"—she sighed like she was mad at herself—"as much as I want you to be safe, I want you to understand something. You need to do whatever you think you have to."
I stared at her. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, do you really, deep down, believe that you have to help save her? Do you think it's the right thing to do? Because I know one thing about you, Percy. Your heart is always in the right place. Listen to it."
"You're… you're telling me to go?"
My mother pursed her lips. "I'm telling you that… you're getting too old for me to tell you what to do. I'm telling you that I'll support you, even if what you decide to do is dangerous. I can't believe I'm saying this."
The toilet flushed down the hall in our apartment.
"I don't have much time," my mom said. "Percy, whatever you decide, I love you. And I know you'll do what's best for Annabeth."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because she'd do the same for you."
And with that, my mother waved her hand over the mist, and the connection dissolved, leaving me with one final image of her new friend, Mr. Blowfish, smiling down at her.
I don't remember falling asleep, but I remember the dream.
I was back in that barren cave, the ceiling heavy and low above me. Annabeth was kneeling under the weight of a dark mass that looked like a pile of boulders. She was too tired even to cry out. Her legs trembled. Any second, I knew she would run out of strength and the cavern ceiling would collapse on top of her.
"How is our mortal guest?" a male voice boomed.
It wasn't Kronos. Kronos's voice was raspy and metallic, like a knife scraped across stone. I'd heard it taunting me many times before in my dreams. But this voice was deeper and lower, like a bass guitar. Its force made the ground vibrate.
Luke emerged from the shadows. He ran to Annabeth, knelt beside her, then looked back at the unseen man. "She's fading. We must hurry."
The hypocrite. Like he really cared what happened to her.
The deep voice chuckled. It belonged to someone in the shadows, at the edge of my dream. Then a meaty hand thrust someone forward into the light—Artemis—her hands and feet bound in celestial bronze chains.
I gasped. Her silvery dress was torn and tattered. Her face and arms were cut in several places, and she was bleeding ichor, the golden blood of the gods.
"You heard the boy," said the man in the shadows. "Decide!"
Artemis's eyes flashed with anger. I didn't know why she just didn't will the chains to burst, or make herself disappear, but she didn't seem able to. Maybe the chains prevented her, or some magic about this dark, horrible place.
The goddess looked at Annabeth and her expression changed to concern and outrage. "How dare you torture a maiden like this!"
"She will die soon," Luke said. "You can save her."
Annabeth made a weak sound of protest. My heart felt like it was being twisted into a knot. I wanted to run to her, but I couldn't move.
"Free my hands," Artemis said.
Luke brought out his sword, Backbiter. With one expert strike, he broke the goddess's handcuffs.
Artemis ran to Annabeth and took the burden from her shoulders. Annabeth collapsed on the ground and lay there shivering. Artemis staggered, trying to support the weight of the black rocks.
The man in the shadows chuckled. "You are as predictable as you were easy to beat, Artemis."
"You surprised me," the goddess said, straining under her burden. "It will not happen again."
"Indeed it will not," the man said. "Now you are out of the way for good! I knew you could not resist helping a young maiden. That is, after all, your specialty, my dear."
Artemis groaned "You know nothing of mercy, you swine."
"On that," the man said, "we can agree. Luke, you may kill the girl now."
"No!'" Artemis shouted.
Luke hesitated. "She—she may yet be useful, sir.. Further bait."
"Bah! You truly believe that?"
"Yes, General. They will come for her. I'm sure."
The man considered. "Then the dracaenae can guard her here. Assuming she does not die from her injuries, you may keep her alive until winter solstice. After that, if our sacrifice goes as planned, her life will be meaningless. The lives of all mortals will be meaningless."
Luke gathered up Annabeth's listless body and carried her away from the goddess.
"You will never find the monster you seek," Artemis said. "Your plan will fail."
"How little you know, my young goddess," the man in the shadows said. "Even now, your darling attendants begin their quest to find you. They shall play directly into my hands. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have a long journey to make. We must greet your Hunters and make sure their quest is… challenging."
The man's laughter echoed in the darkness, shaking the ground until it seemed the whole cavern ceiling would collapse.
I woke with a start. I was sure I'd heard a loud banging. I looked around the cabin. It was dark outside. The salt spring still gurgled. No other sounds but the hoot of an owl in the woods and the distant surf on the beach. In the moonlight, on my nightstand was Annabeth's New York Yankees cap. I stared at it for a second and then:BANG BANG.
Someone, or something, was pounding on my door. I grabbed Riptide and got out of bed.
"Hello?" I called. THUMP. THUMP.I crept to the door.
I uncapped the blade, flung open the door, and found myself face-to-face with a black pegasus.
Whoa, boss! Its voice spoke in my mind as it clopped away from the sword blade. I don't wanna be a horse-ke-bob!
Its black wings spread in alarm, and the wind buffeted me back a step,
"Blackjack," I said, relieved but a little irritated. "It's the middle of the night!"