She slammed her pinecone staff against the ground and a white geyser bubbled up. “Eggnog!”
Maenads rushed forward to fill their goblets.
“Merry Christmas!” one yelled.
“Party!” another said.
“Kill everything!” said a third.
Piper took a step back. “You’re…drunk on eggnog?”
“Whee!” Buffy sloshed her eggnog and gave Leo a frothy grin. “Kill things! With a sprinkle of nutmeg!”
Leo decided never to drink eggnog again.
“But enough talk, my lord,” Babette said. “You’ve been naughty, keeping yourself hidden! You changed your e-mail and phone number. One might think the great Dionysus was trying to avoid his Maenads!”
Jason removed another girl’s hands from his shoulders. “Can’t imagine why the great Dionysus would do that.”
Babette sized up Jason. “This one is a sacrifice, obviously. We should start the festivities by ripping him apart. The party planner girl can prove herself by helping us!”
“Or,” Leo said, “we could start with some appetizers. Crispy Cheese ’n’ Wieners. Taquitos. Maybe some chips and queso. And…wait, I know! We need a table to put them on.”
Babette’s smile wavered. The snakes hissed around her pinecone staff. “A table?”
“Cheese ’n’ Wieners?” Trixie added hopefully.
“Yeah, a table!” Leo snapped his fingers and pointed toward the end of the clearing. “You know what—I think I saw one walking that way. Why don’t you guys wait here, and drink some eggnog or whatever, and my friends and I will go get the table. We’ll be right back!”
He started to leave, but two of the Maenads pushed him back. The push didn’t seem exactly playful.
Babette’s eyes turned an even deeper red. “Why is my lord Dionysus so interested in furniture? Where is your leopard? And your wine cup?”
Leo gulped. “Yeah. Wine cup. Silly me.” He reached into his tool bag. He prayed it would produce a wine cup for him, but that wasn’t exactly a tool. He grabbed something, pulled it out, and found himself holding a lug wrench.
“Hey, look at that,” he said weakly. “There’s some godly magic right there, huh? What’s a party without…a lug wrench?”
The Maenads stared at him. Some frowned. Others were cross-eyed from the eggnog.
Jason stepped to his side. “Hey, um, Dionysus…maybe we should talk. Like, in private. You know…about party stuff.”
“We’ll be right back!” Piper announced. “Just wait here, you guys. Okay?”
Her voice was almost electric with charmspeak, but the Maenads didn’t appear moved.
“No, you will stay.” Babette’s eyes bored into Leo’s. “You do not act like Dionysus. Those who fail to honor the god, those who dare to work instead of partying—they must be ripped apart. And anyone who dares to impersonate the god, he must die even more painfully.”
“Wine!” Leo yelped. “Did I mention how much I love wine?”
Babette didn’t look convinced. “If you are the god of parties, you will know the order of our revelries. Prove it! Lead us!”
Leo felt trapped. He’d once been stuck in a cave on top of Pikes Peak, surrounded by a pack of werewolves. Another time he’d been stuck in an abandoned factory with a family of evil Cyclopes. But this—standing in an open clearing with a dozen pretty girls—was much worse.
“Sure!” His voice squeaked. “Revelries. So we start with the Hokey Pokey—”
Trixie snarled. “No, my lord. The Hokey Pokey is second.”
“Right,” Leo said. “First is the limbo contest, then the Hokey Pokey. Then, um, pin the tail on the donkey—”
“Wrong!” Babette’s eyes turned completely red. The Kool-Aid darkened in her veins, making a web of red lines like ivy under her skin. “Last chance, and I’ll even give you a hint. We begin by singing the Bacchanalian Jingle. You do remember it, don’t you?”
Leo’s tongue felt like sandpaper.
Piper put her hand on his arm. “Of course he remembers it.” Her eyes said, Run.
Jason’s knuckles turned white on the hilt of his sword.
Leo hated singing. He cleared his throat and started warbling the first thing that came into his head—something he’d watched online while he worked on the Argo II.
After a few lines, Candy hissed. “That is not the Bacchanalian Jingle! That is the theme song for Psych!”
“Kill the unbelievers!” Babette screamed.
Leo knew an exit cue when he heard one.
He pulled a reliable trick. From his tool belt, he grabbed a flask of oil and splashed it in an arc in front of him, dousing the Maenads. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, but he reminded himself these girls weren’t human. They were nature spirits bent on ripping him apart. He summoned fire into his hands and set the oil ablaze.
A wall of flames engulfed the nymphs. Jason and Piper did a one-eighty and ran. Leo was right behind them.
He expected to hear screaming from the Maenads. Instead, he heard laughter. He glanced back and saw the Maenads dancing through the flames in their bare feet. Their dresses were smoldering, but the Maenads didn’t seem to care. They leaped through the fire like they were playing in a sprinkler.
“Thank you, unbeliever!” Babette laughed. “Our frenzy makes us immune to fire, but it does tickle! Trixie, send the unbelievers a thank-you gift!”
Trixie skipped over to the pile of boulders. She grasped a rock the size of a refrigerator and lifted it over her head.
“Run!” Piper said.
“We are running!” Jason picked up the speed.
“Run better!” Leo shouted.
They reached the edge of the clearing when a shadow passed overhead.
“Veer left!” Leo yelled.
They dove into the trees as the boulder slammed next to them with a jaw-rattling thud, missing Leo by a few inches. They skidded down a ravine until Leo lost his footing. He plowed into Jason and Piper so they ended up rolling downhill like a demigod snowball. They crashed into Brooke’s stream at the bottom, helped each other up, and stumbled deeper into the woods. Behind them, Leo heard the Maenads laughing and shouting, urging Leo to come back so they could rip him to shreds.
For some reason, Leo wasn’t tempted.
Jason pulled them behind a massive oak tree, where they stood gasping for breath. Piper’s elbow was scraped up pretty badly. Jason’s left pants leg had ripped almost completely off, so it looked like his leg was wearing a denim cape. Somehow, they’d all made it down the hill without killing themselves with their own weapons, which was a miracle.
“How do we beat them?” Jason demanded. “They’re immune to fire. They’re superstrong.”
“We can’t kill them,” Piper said.
“There has to be a way,” Leo said.
“No. We can’t kill them,” Piper said. “Anyone who kills a Maenad is cursed by Dionysus. Haven’t you read the old stories? People who kill his followers go crazy or get morphed into animals or…well, bad stuff.”
“Worse than letting the Maenads rip us to shreds?” Jason asked.
Piper didn’t answer. Her face was so clammy, Leo decided not to ask for details.
“That’s just great,” Jason said. “So we have to stop them without killing them. Anyone got a really big piece of flypaper?”
“We’re outnumbered four to one,” Piper said. “Plus…” She grabbed Leo’s wrist and checked his watch. “We have twenty minutes until Bunker Nine explodes.”
“It’s impossible,” Jason summed up.
“We’re dead,” Piper agreed.
But Leo’s mind was spinning into overdrive. He did his best work when things were impossible.
Stopping the Maenads without killing them…Bunker 9…flypaper. An idea came together like one of his crazy contraptions, all the gears and pistons clicking into place perfectly.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “Jason, you’ll have to find Buford. You know which way he went. Circle back and find him, then bring him to the bunker, quick! Once you’re far enough from the Maenads, maybe you can control the winds again. Then you can fly.”
Jason frowned. “What about you two?”
“We’re going to lead the Maenads out of your way,” Leo said, “straight to Bunker Nine.”
Piper coughed. “Excuse me, but isn’t Bunker Nine about to explode?”
“Yes, but if I can get the Maenads inside, I have a way to take care of them.”
Jason looked skeptical. “Even if you can, I’ll still have to find Buford and get the syncopator back to you in twenty minutes, or you, Piper, and a dozen crazy nymphs will blow up.”
“Trust me,” Leo said. “And it’s nineteen minutes now.”
“I love this plan.” Piper leaned over and kissed Jason. “In case I explode. Please hurry.”
Jason didn’t even respond. He bolted into the woods.
“Come on,” Leo told Piper. “Let’s invite the Maenads over to my place.”
Leo had played games in the woods before—mostly capture-the-flag—but even Camp Half-Blood’s full combat version wasn’t nearly as dangerous as running from Maenads. Piper and he retraced their steps in the fading sunlight. Their breath steamed. Occasionally Leo would shout, “Party over here!” to let the Maenads know where they were. It was tricky, because Leo had to stay far enough ahead to avoid getting caught, but close enough so the Maenads wouldn’t lose their trail.
Occasionally he heard startled cries as the Maenads happened across some unfortunate monster or nature spirit. Once a blood-chilling shriek pierced the air, followed by a sound like a tree getting destroyed by an army of savage chipmunks. Leo was so scared that he could hardly keep his feet moving. He figured some poor dryad had just gotten her life source shredded to splinters. Leo knew nature spirits got reincarnated, but that death cry was still the most awful thing he’d ever heard.
“Unbelievers!” Babette shouted through the woods. “Come celebrate with us!”
She sounded much closer now. Leo’s instincts told him to just keep running. Forget Bunker 9. Maybe he and Piper could make it to the edge of the blast zone.
And then what…leave Jason to die? Let the Maenads blow up so Leo could suffer the curse of Dionysus? And would the explosion even kill Maenads? Leo had no idea. What if the Maenads survived and kept searching for Dionysus? Eventually they’d stumble across the cabins and the other campers. No, that wasn’t an option. Leo had to protect his friends. He could still save the Argo II.
“Over here!” he yelled. “Party at my house!”
He grabbed Piper’s wrist and sprinted for the bunker.
He could hear the Maenads closing fast—bare feet running across the grass, branches snapping, eggnog goblets shattering against rocks.
“Almost there.” Piper pointed through the woods. A hundred yards ahead rose a sheer limestone cliff that marked the entrance to Bunker 9.