“Whoa, girl!” Quintus said. “Those aren’t for you.” He distracted her with the bronze shield Frisbee.
The crates thumped and shook. There were words printed on the sides, but with my dyslexia they took me a few minutes to decipher:
TRIPLE G RANCH FRAGILE THIS END UP
Along the bottom, in smaller letters: OPEN WITH CARE. TRIPLE G RANCH IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE, MAIMING, OR EXCRUCIATINGLY PAINFUL DEATHS.
“What’s in the boxes?” I asked.
“A little surprise,” Quintus said. “Training activity for tomorrow night. You’ll love it.”
“Uh, okay,” I said, though I wasn’t sure about the “excruciatingly painful death” part.
Quintus threw the bronze shield, and Mrs. O’Leary lumbered after it. “You young ones need more challenges. They didn’t have camps like this when I was a boy.”
“You—you’re a half-blood?” I didn’t mean to sound surprised, but I’d never seen an old demigod before.
Quintus chuckled. “Some of us do survive into adulthood, you know. Not all of us are the subject of terrible prophecies.”
“You know about my prophecy?”
“I’ve heard a few things.”
I wanted to ask what few things, but just then Chiron clip-clopped into the arena. “Percy, there you are!”
He must’ve just come from teaching archery. He had a quiver and bow slung over his #1 CENTAUR T-shirt. He’d trimmed his curly brown hair and beard for the summer, and his lower half, which was a white stallion, was flecked with mud and grass.
“I see you’ve met our new instructor.” Chiron’s tone was light, but there was an uneasy look in his eyes. “Quintus, do you mind if I borrow Percy?”
“Not at all, Master Chiron.”
“No need to call me ‘Master’,” Chiron said, though he sounded sort of pleased. “Come, Percy. We have much to discuss.”
I took one more glance at Mrs. O’Leary, who was now chewing off the target dummy’s legs.
“Well, see you,” I told Quintus.
As we were walking away, I whispered to Chiron, “Quintus seemed kind of—”
“Mysterious?” Chiron suggested. “Hard to read?”
Chiron nodded. “A very qualified half-blood. Excellent swordsman, I just wish I understood…”
Whatever he was going to say, he apparently changed his mind. “First things first, Percy. Annabeth told me you met some empousai.”
“Yeah.” I told him about the fight at Goode, and how Kelli had exploded into flames.
“Mm,” Chiron said. “The more powerful ones can do that. She did not die, Percy. She simply escaped. It is not good that the she-demons are stirring.”
“What were they doing there?” I asked. “Waiting for me?”
“Possibly,” Chiron frowned. “It is amazing you survived. Their powers of deception…almost any male hero would’ve fallen under their spell and been devoured.”
“I would’ve been,” I admitted. “Except for Rachel.”
Chiron nodded. “Ironic to be saved by a mortal, yet we owe her a debt. What the empousa said about an attack on camp—we must speak of this further. But for now, come, we should get to the woods. Grover will want you there.”
“At his formal hearing,” Chiron said grimly. “The Council of Cloven Elders is meeting now to decide his fate.”
Chiron said we needed to hurry, so I let him give me a ride on his back. As we galloped past the cabins, I glanced at the dining hall—an open-air Greek pavilion on a hill overlooking the sea. It was the first time I’d seen the place since last summer, and it brought back bad memories.
Chiron plunged into the woods. Nymphs peeked out of the trees to watch us pass. Large shapes rustled in the shadows—monsters that were stocked in here as a challenge to the campers.
I thought I knew the forest pretty well after playing capture the flag here for two summers, but Chiron took me a way I didn’t recognize, through a tunnel of old willow trees, past a little waterfall, and into a glade blanketed with wildflowers.
A bunch of satyrs were sitting in a circle in the grass. Grover stood in the middle, facing three really old, really fat satyrs who sat on topiary thrones shaped out of rose bushes. I’d never seen the three old satyrs before, but I guessed they must be the Council of Cloven Elders.
Grover seemed to be telling them a story. He twisted the bottom of his T-shirt, shifting nervously on his goat hooves. He hadn’t changed much since last winter, maybe because satyrs age half as fast as humans. His acne had flared up. His horns had gotten a little bigger so they just stuck out over his curly hair. I realized with a start that I was taller than he was now.
Standing off to one side of the circle were Annabeth, another girl I’d never seen before, and Clarisse. Chiron dropped me next to them.
Clarisse’s stringy brown hair was tied back with a camouflage bandanna. If possible, she looked even buffer, like she’d been working out. She glared at me and muttered, “Punk,” which must’ve meant she was in a good mood. Usually she says hello by trying to kill me.
Annabeth had her arm around the other girl, who looked like she’d been crying. She was small—petite, I guess you’d call it—with wispy hair the color of amber and a pretty, elfish face. She wore a green chiton and laced sandals, and she was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s going terribly,” she sniffled.
“No, no,” Annabeth patted her shoulders. “He’ll be fine, Juniper.”
Annabeth looked at me and mouthed the words Grover’s girlfriend.
At least I thought that’s what she said, but that didn’t make any sense. Grover with a girlfriend? Then I looked at Juniper more closely, and I realized her ears were slightly pointed. Her eyes, instead of being red from crying, were tinged green, the color of chlorophyll. She was a tree nymph— a dryad.
“Master Underwood!” the council member on the right shouted, cutting off whatever Grover was trying to say. “Do you seriously expect us to believe this?”
“B-but Silenus,” Grover stammered. “It’s the truth!”
The Council guy, Silenus, turned to his colleagues and muttered something. Chiron cantered up to the front and stood next to them. I remembered he was an honorary member of the council, but I’d never thought about it much. The elders didn’t look very impressive. They reminded me of the goats in a petting zoo—huge bellies, sleepy expressions, and glazed eyes that couldn’t see past the next handful of goat chow. I wasn’t sure why Grover seemed so nervous.
Silenus tugged his yellow polo shirt over his belly and adjusted himself on his rosebush throne. “Master Underwood, for six months—six months— we have been hearing these scandalous claims that you heard the wild god Pan speak.”
“But I did!”
“Impudence!” said the elder on the left.
“Now, Maron,” Chiron said. “Patience.”
“Patience, indeed!” Maron said. “I’ve had it up to my horns with this nonsense. As if the wild god would speak to…to him.”
Juniper looked like she wanted to charge the old satyr and beat him up, but Annabeth and Clarisse held her back. “Wrong fight, girlie,” Clarisse muttered. “Wait.”
I don’t know what surprised me more: Clarisse holding someone back from a fight, or the fact that she and Annabeth, who despised each other, almost seemed like they were working together.
“For six months,” Silenus continued, “we have indulged you, Master Underwood. We let you travel. We allowed you to keep your searcher’s license. We waited for you to bring proof of your preposterous claim. And what have you found in six months of travel?”
“I just need more time,” Grover pleaded.
“Nothing!” the elder in the middle chimed in. “You have found nothing.”
Silenus raised his hand. Chiron leaned in and said something to the satyrs. The satyrs didn’t look happy. They muttered and argued among themselves, but Chiron said something else, and Silenus sighed. He nodded reluctantly.
“Master Underwood,” Silenus announced, “we will give you one more chance.”
Grover brightened. “Thank you!”
“One more week.”
“What? But sir! That’s impossible!”
“One more week, Master Underwood. And then, if you cannot prove your claims, it will be time for you to pursue another career. Something to suit your dramatic talents. Puppet theater, perhaps. Or tap dancing.”
“But sir, I—I can’t lose my searcher’s license. My whole life—”
“This meeting of the council is adjourned,” Silenus said. “And now let us enjoy our noonday meal!”
The old satyr clapped his hands, and a bunch of nymphs melted out of the trees with platters of vegetables, fruits, tin cans, and other goat delicacies. The circle of satyrs broke and charged the food. Grover walked dejectedly toward us. His faded blue T-shirt had a picture of a satyr on it. It read GOT HOOVES?
“Hi, Percy,” he said, so depressed he didn’t even offer to shake my hand. “That went well, huh?”
“Those old goats!” Juniper said. “Oh, Grover, they don’t know how hard you’ve tried!”
“There is another option,” Clarisse said darkly.
“No. No.” Juniper shook her head. “Grover, I won’t let you.”
His face was ashen. “I—I’ll have to think about it. But we don’t even know where to look.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
In the distance, a conch horn sounded.
Annabeth pursed her lips. “I’ll fill you in later, Percy. We’d better get back to our cabins. Inspection is starting.”
It didn’t seem fair that I’d have to do cabin inspection when I just got to camp, but that’s the way it worked. Every afternoon, one of the senior counselors came around with a papyrus scroll checklist. Best cabin got first shower hour, which meant hot water guaranteed. Worst cabin got kitchen patrol after dinner.
The problem for me: I was usually the only one in the Poseidon cabin, and I’m not exactly what you would call neat. The cleaning harpies only came through on the last day of summer, so my cabin was probably just the way I’d left it on winter break: my candy wrappers and chip bags still on my bunk, my armor for capture the flag lying in pieces all around the cabin.
I raced toward the commons area, where the twelve cabins—one for each Olympian god—made a U around the central green. The Demeter kids were sweeping out theirs and making fresh flowers grow in their window boxes. Just by snapping their fingers they could make honeysuckle vines bloom over their doorway and daisies cover their roof, which was totally unfair. I don’t think they ever got last place in inspection. The guys in the Hermes cabin were scrambling around in a panic, stashing dirty laundry under their beds and accusing each other of taking stuff. They were slobs, but they still had a head start on me.