The next thing I knew I was flat on the ground with a huge paw on my chest and an oversize Brillo-pad tongue licking my face.
"Ow!" I said. "Hey, girl. Good to see you too. Ow!"
It took a few minutes for Mrs. O'Leary to calm down and get off me. By then I was pretty much drenched in dog drool. She wanted to play fetch, so I picked up a bronze shield and tossed it across the arena.
By the way, Mrs. O'Leary is the world's only friendly hellhound. I kind of inherited her when her previous owner died. She lived at camp, but Beckendorf . . . well, Beckendorf used to take care of her whenever I was gone. He had smelted Mrs. O'Leary's favorite bronze chewing bone. He'd forged her collar with the little smiley face and a crossbones name tag. Next to me, Beckendorf had been her best friend.
Thinking about that made me sad all over again, but I threw the shield a few more times because Mrs. O'Leary insisted.
Soon she started barking—a sound slightly louder than an artillery gun—like she needed to go for a walk. The other campers didn't think it was funny when she went to the bathroom in the arena. It had caused more than one unfortunate slip-and-slide accident. So I opened the gates of the arena, and she bounded straight toward the woods.
I jogged after her, not too concerned that she was getting ahead. Nothing in the woods could threaten Mrs. O'Leary. Even the dragons and giant scorpions ran away when she came close.
When I finally tracked her down, she wasn't using the facilities. She was in a familiar clearing where the Council of Cloven Elders had once put Grover on trial. The place didn't look so good. The grass had turned yellow. The three topiary thrones had lost all their leaves. But that's not what surprised me. In the middle of the glade stood the weirdest trio I'd ever seen: Juniper the tree nymph, Nico di Angelo, and a very old, very fat satyr.
Nico was the only one who didn't seem freaked out by Mrs. O'Leary's appearance. He looked pretty much like I'd seen him in my dream—an aviator's jacket, black jeans, and a T-shirt with dancing skeletons on it, like one of those Day of the Dead pictures. His Stygian iron sword hung at his side. He was only twelve, but he looked much older and sadder.
He nodded when he saw me, then went back to scratching Mrs. O'Leary's ears. She sniffed his legs like he was the most interesting thing since rib-eye steaks. Being the son of Hades, he'd probably been traveling in all sorts of hellhound-friendly places.
The old satyr didn't look nearly so happy. "Will someone—what is this underworld creature doing in my forest!" He waved his arms and trotted on his hooves as if the grass were hot. "You there, Percy Jackson! Is this your beast?"
"Sorry, Leneus," I said. "That's your name, right?"
The satyr rolled his eyes. His fur was dust-bunny gray, and a spiderweb grew between his horns. His belly would've made him an invincible bumper car. "Well, of course I'm Leneus. Don't tell me you've forgotten a member of the Council so quickly. Now, call off your beast!"
"WOOF!" Mrs. O'Leary said happily.
The old satyr gulped. "Make it go away! Juniper, I will not help you under these circumstances!"
Juniper turned toward me. She was pretty in a dryad-y way, with her purple gossamer dress and her elfish face, but her eyes were green-tinted with chlorophyll from crying.
"Percy," she sniffled. "I was just asking about Grover. I know something's happened. He wouldn't stay gone this long if he wasn't in trouble. I was hoping that Leneus—"
"I told you!" the satyr protested. "You are better off without that traitor."
Juniper stamped her foot. "He is not a traitor! He's the bravest satyr ever, and I want to know where he is!"
Leneus's knees started knocking. "I . . . I won't answer questions with this hellhound sniffing my tail!"
Nico looked like he was trying to not crack up. "I'll walk the dog," he volunteered.
He whistled, and Mrs. O'Leary bounded after him to the far end of the grove.
Leneus huffed indignantly and brushed the twigs off his shirt. "Now, as I was trying to explain, young lady, your boyfriend has not sent any reports since we voted him into exile."
"You tried to vote him into exile," I corrected. "Chiron and Dionysus stopped you."
"Bah! They are honorary Council members. It wasn't a proper vote."
"I'll tell Dionysus you said that."
Leneus paled. "I only meant . . . Now see here, Jackson. This is none of your business."
"Grover's my friend," I said. "He wasn't lying to you about Pan's death. I saw it myself. You were just too scared to accept the truth."
Leneus's lips quivered. "No! Grover's a liar and good riddance. We're better off without him."
I pointed at the withered thrones. "If things are going so well, where are your friends? Looks like your Council hasn't been meeting lately."
"Maron and Silenus . . . I . . . I'm sure they'll be back," he said, but I could hear the panic in his voice. "They're just taking some time off to think. It's been a very unsettling year.
"It's going to get a lot more unsettling," I promised. "Leneus, we need Grover. There's got to be a way you can find him with your magic."
The old satyr's eye twitched. "I'm telling you, I've heard nothing. Perhaps he's dead."
Juniper choked back a sob.
"He's not dead," I said. "I can feel that much."
"Empathy links," Leneus said disdainfully. "Very unreliable."
"So ask around," I insisted. "Find him. There's a war coming. Grover was preparing the nature spirits."
"Without my permission! And it's not our war."
I grabbed him by the shirt, which seriously wasn't like me, but the stupid old goat was making me mad. "Listen, Leneus. When Kronos attacks, he's going to have packs of hellhounds. He's going to destroy everything in his path—mortals, gods, demigods. Do you think he'll let the satyrs go free? You're supposed to be a leader. So LEAD. Get out there and see what's happening. Find Grover and bring Juniper some news. Now, GO!"
I didn't push him very hard, but he was kind of top-heavy. He fell on his furry rump, then scrambled to his hooves and ran away with his belly jiggling. "Grover will never be accepted! He will die an outcast!"
When he'd disappeared into the bushes, Juniper wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry, Percy. I didn't mean to get you involved. Leneus is still a lord of the Wild. You don't want to make an enemy of him."
"No problem," I said. "I've got worse enemies than overweight satyrs."
Nico walked back to us. "Good job, Percy. Judging from the trail of goat pellets, I'd say you shook him up pretty well."
I was afraid I knew why Nico was here, but I tried for a smile. "Welcome back. Did you come by just to see Juniper?"
He blushed. "Um, no. That was an accident. I kind of . . . dropped into the middle of their conversation."
"He scared us to death!" Juniper said. "Right out of the shadows. But, Nico, you are the son of Hades and all. Are you sure you haven't heard anything about Grover?"
Nico shifted his weight. "Juniper, like I tried to tell you . . . even if Grover died, he would reincarnate into something else in nature. I can't sense things like that, only mortal souls."
"But if you do hear anything?" she pleaded, putting her hand on his arm. "Anything at all?"
Nico's cheeks got even brighter red. "Uh, you bet. I'll keep my ears open."
"We'll find him, Juniper," I promised. "Grover's alive, I'm sure. There must be a simple reason why he hasn't contacted us."
She nodded glumly. "I hate not being able to leave the forest. He could be anywhere, and I'm stuck here waiting. Oh, if that silly goat has gotten himself hurt—"
Mrs. O'Leary bounded back over and took an interest in Juniper's dress.
Juniper yelped. "Oh, no you don't! I know about dogs and trees. I'm gone!"
She went poof into green mist. Mrs. O'Leary looked disappointed, but she lumbered off to find another target, leaving Nico and me alone.
Nico tapped his sword on the ground. A tiny mound of animal bones erupted from the dirt. They knit themselves together into a skeletal field mouse and scampered off. "I was sorry to hear about Beckendorf."
A lump formed in my throat. "How did you—"
"I talked to his ghost."
"Oh . . . right." I'd never get used to the fact that this twelve-year-old kid spent more time talking with the dead than the living. "Did he say anything?"
"He doesn't blame you. He figured you'd be beating yourself up, and he said you shouldn't."
"Is he going to try for rebirth?"
Nico shook his head. "He's staying in Elysium. Said he's waiting for someone. Not sure what he meant, but he seems okay with death."
It wasn't much comfort, but it was something.
"I had a vision you were on Mount Tarn," I told Nico. "Was that—"
"Real," he said. "I didn't mean to be spying on the Titans, but I was in the neighborhood."
Nico tugged at his sword belt. "Following a lead on . . . you know, my family."
I nodded. I knew his past was a painful subject. Until two years ago, he and his sister Bianca had been frozen in time at a place called the Lotus Hotel and Casino. They'd been there for like seventy years. Eventually a mysterious lawyer rescued them and checked them into a boarding school, but Nico had no memories of his life before the casino. He didn't know anything about his mother. He didn't know who the lawyer was, or why they'd been frozen in time or allowed to go free. After Bianca died and left Nico alone, he'd been obsessed with finding answers.
"So how did it go?" I asked. "Any luck?"
"No," he murmured. "But I may have a new lead soon."
"What's the lead?"
Nico chewed his lip. "That's not important right now. You know why I'm here."
A feeling of dread started to build in my chest. Ever since Nico first proposed his plan for beating Kronos last summer, I'd had nightmares about it. He would show up occasionally and press me for an answer, but I kept putting him off.
"Nico, I don't know," I said. "It seems pretty extreme."
"You've got Typhon coming in, what . . . a week? Most of the other Titans are unleashed now and on Kronos's side. Maybe it's time to think extreme."
I looked back toward the camp. Even from this distance I could hear the Ares and Apollo campers fighting again, yelling curses and spouting bad poetry.
"They're no match for the Titan army," Nico said. "You know that. This comes down to you and Luke. And there's only one way you can beat Luke."
I remembered the fight on the Princess Andromeda. I'd been hopelessly outmatched. Kronos had almost killed me with a single cut to my arm, and I couldn't even wound him. Riptide had glanced right off his skin.
"We can give you the same power," Nico urged. "You heard the Great Prophecy. Unless you want to have your soul reaped by a cursed blade . . ."
I wondered how Nico had heard the prophecy— probably from some ghost.
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