She pulled a tray out of the oven and dumped a dozen lumps of chocolate chip charcoal on the table.
"Luke was so kind," Ms. Castellan murmured. "He left to protect me, you know. He said if he went away, the monsters wouldn't threaten me. But I told him the monsters are no threat! They sit outside on the sidewalk all day, and they never come in." She picked up the little stuffed Medusa from the windowsill. "Do they, Mrs. Medusa? No, no threat at all." She beamed at me. "I'm so glad you came home. I knew you weren't ashamed of me!"
I shifted in my seat. I imagined being Luke sitting at this table, eight or nine years old, and just beginning to realize that my mother wasn't all there.
"Ms. Castellan," I said.
"Mom," she corrected.
"Um, yeah. Have you seen Luke since he left home?"
"Well, of course!"
I didn't know if she was imagining that or not. For all I knew, every time the mailman came to the door he was Luke. But Nico sat forward expectantly.
"When?" he asked. "When did Luke visit you last?"
"Well, it was . . . Oh goodness . . ." A shadow passed across her face. "The last time, he looked so different. A scar. A terrible scar, and his voice so full of pain . . ."
"His eyes," I said. "Were they gold?"
"Gold?" She blinked. "No. How silly. Luke has blue eyes. Beautiful blue eyes!"
So Luke really had been here, and this had happened before last summer—before he'd turned into Kronos.
"Ms. Castellan?" Nico put his hand on the old woman's arm. "This is very important. Did he ask you for anything?"
She frowned as if trying to remember. "My—my blessing. Isn't that sweet?" She looked at us uncertainly. "He was going to a river, and he said he needed my blessing. I gave it to him. Of course I did."
Nico looked at me triumphantly. "Thank you, ma'am. That's all the information we—"
Ms. Castellan gasped. She doubled over, and her cookie tray clattered to the floor. Nico and I jumped to our feet.
"Ms. Castellan?" I said.
"AHHHH," She straightened. I scrambled away and almost fell over the kitchen table, because her eyes—her eyes were glowing green.
"My child," she rasped in a much deeper voice. "Must protect him! Hermes, help! Not my child! Not his fate—no!"
She grabbed Nico by the shoulders and began to shake him as if to make him understand. "Not his fate!"
Nico made a strangled scream and pushed her away. He gripped the hilt of his sword. "Percy, we need to get out—"
Suddenly Ms. Castellan collapsed. I lurched forward and caught her before she could hit the edge of the table. I managed to get her into a chair.
"Ms. C?" I asked.
She muttered something incomprehensible and shook her head. "Goodness. I . . . I dropped the cookies. How silly of me."
She blinked, and her eyes were back to normal—or at least, what they had been before. The green glow was gone.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Well, of course, dear. I'm fine. Why do you ask?"
I glanced at Nico, who mouthed the word Leave.
"Ms. C, you were telling us something," I said. "Something about your son."
"Was I?" she said dreamily. "Yes, his blue eyes. We were talking about his blue eyes. Such a handsome boy!"
"We have to go," Nico said urgently. "We'll tell Luke . . . uh, we'll tell him you said hello."
"But you can't leave!" Ms. Castellan got shakily to her feet, and I backed away. I felt silly being scared of a frail old woman, but the way her voice had changed, the way she'd grabbed Nico . . .
"Hermes will be here soon," she promised. "He'll want to see his boy!"
"Maybe next time," I said. "Thank you for—" I looked down at the burned cookies scattered on the floor. "Thanks for everything."
She tried to stop us, to offer us Kool-Aid, but I had to get out of that house. On the front porch, she grabbed my wrist and I almost jumped out of my skin. "Luke, at least be safe. Promise me you'll be safe."
"I will . . . Mom."
That made her smile. She released my wrist, and as she closed the front door I could hear her talking to the candles: "You hear that? He will be safe. I told you he would be!"
As the door shut, Nico and I ran. The little beanbag animals on the sidewalk seemed to grin at us as we passed.
Back at the cliff, Mrs. O'Leary had found a friend.
A cozy campfire crackled in a ring of stones. A girl about eight years old was sitting cross-legged next to Mrs. O'Leary, scratching the hellhound's ears.
The girl had mousy brown hair and a simple brown dress. She wore a scarf over her head so she looked like a pioneer kid—like the ghost of Little House on the Prairie or something. She poked the fire with a stick, and it seemed to glow more richly red than a normal fire.
"Hello," she said.
My first thought was: monster. When you're a demigod and you find a sweet little girl alone in the woods—that's typically a good time to draw your sword and attack. Plus, the encounter with Ms. Castellan had rattled me pretty bad.
But Nico bowed to the little girl. "Hello again, Lady."
She studied me with eyes as red as the firelight. I decided it was safest to bow.
"Sit, Percy Jackson," she said. "Would you like some dinner?
After staring at moldy peanut butter sandwiches and burned cookies, I didn't have much of an appetite, but the girl waved her hand and a picnic appeared at the edge of the fire. There were plates of roast beef, baked potatoes, buttered carrots, fresh bread, and a whole bunch of other foods I hadn't had in a long time. My stomach started to rumble. It was the kind of home-cooked meal people are supposed to have but never do. The girl made a five-foot-long dog biscuit appear for Mrs. O'Leary, who happily began tearing it to shreds.
I sat next to Nico. We picked up our food, and I was about to dig in when I thought better of it.
I scraped part of my meal into the flames, the way we do at camp. "For the gods," I said.
The little girl smiled. "Thank you. As tender of the flame, I get a share of every sacrifice, you know."
"I recognize you now," I said. "The first time I came to camp, you were sitting by the fire, in the middle of the commons area."
"You did not stop to talk," the girl recalled sadly. "Alas, most never do. Nico talked to me. He was the first in many years. Everyone rushes about. No time for visiting family."
"You're Hestia," I said. "Goddess of the Hearth."
Okay . . . so she looked eight years old. I didn't ask. I'd learned that gods could look any way they pleased.
"My lady," Nico asked, "why aren't you with the other Olympians, fighting Typhon?"
"I'm not much for fighting." Her red eyes flickered. I realized they weren't just reflecting the flames. They were filled with flames—but not like Ares's eyes. Hestia's eyes were warm and cozy.
"Besides," she said, "someone has to keep the home fires burning while the other gods are away."
"So you're guarding Mount Olympus?" I asked.
"'Guard' may be too strong a word. But if you ever need a warm place to sit and a home-cooked meal, you are welcome to visit. Now eat."
My plate was empty before I knew it. Nico scarfed his down just as fast.
"That was great," I said. "Thank you, Hestia."
She nodded. "Did you have a good visit with May Castellan?"
For a moment I'd almost forgotten the old lady with her bright eyes and her maniacal smile, the way she'd suddenly seemed possessed.
"What's wrong with her, exactly?" I asked.
"She was born with a gift," Hestia said. "She could see through the Mist."
"Like my mother," I said. And I was also thinking, Like Rachel "But the glowing eyes thing—"
"Some bear the curse of sight better than others," the goddess said sadly. "For a while, May Castellan had many talents. She attracted the attention of Hermes himself. They had a beautiful baby boy. For a brief time, she was happy. And then she went too far."
I remembered what Ms. Castellan had said: They offered me an important job . . . It didn't work out. I wondered what kind of job left you like that.
"One minute she was all happy," I said. "And then she was freaking out about her son's fate, like she knew he'd turned into Kronos. What happened to . . . to divide her like that?"
The goddess's face darkened. "That is a story I do not like to tell. But May Castellan saw too much. If you are to understand your enemy Luke, you must understand his family."
I thought about the sad little pictures of Hermes taped above May Castellan's sink. I wondered if Ms. Castellan had been so crazy when Luke was little. That green-eyed fit could've seriously scared a nine-year-old kid. And if Hermes never visited, if he'd left Luke alone with his mom all those years . . .
"No wonder Luke ran away," I said. "I mean, it wasn't right to leave his mom like that, but still—he was just a kid. Hermes shouldn't have abandoned them."
Hestia scratched behind Mrs. O'Leary's ears. The hellhound wagged her tail and accidentally knocked over a tree.
"It's easy to judge others," Hestia warned. "But will you follow Luke's path? Seek the same powers?"
Nico set down his plate. "We have no choice, my lady. It's the only way Percy stands a chance."
"Mmm." Hestia opened her hand and the fire roared. Flames shot thirty feet into the air. Heat slapped me in the face. Then the fire died back down to normal.
"Not all powers are spectacular." Hestia looked at me. "Sometimes the hardest power to master is the power of yielding. Do you believe me?"
"Uh-huh," I said. Anything to keep her from messing with her flame powers again.
The goddess smiled. "You are a good hero, Percy Jackson. Not too proud. I like that. But you have much to learn. When Dionysus was made a god, I gave up my throne for him. It was the only way to avoid a civil war among the gods."
"It unbalanced the Council," I remembered. "Suddenly there were seven guys and five girls."
Hestia shrugged. "It was the best solution, not a perfect one. Now I tend the fire. I fade slowly into the background. No one will ever write epic poems about the deeds of Hestia. Most demigods don't even stop to talk to me. But that is no matter. I keep the peace. I yield when necessary. Can you do this?"
"I don't know what you mean."
She studied me. "Perhaps not yet. But soon. Will you continue your quest?"
"Is that why you're here—to warn me against going?"
Hestia shook her head. "I am here because when all else fails, when all the other mighty gods have gone off to war, I am all that's left. Home. Hearth. I am the last Olympian. You must remember me when you face your final decision.
I didn't like the way she said final.
I looked at Nico, then back at Hestia's warm glowing eyes. "I have to continue, my lady. I have to stop Luke . . . I mean Kronos."
Hestia nodded. "Very well. I cannot be of much assistance, beyond what I have already told you. But since you sacrificed to me, I can return you to your own hearth. I will see you again, Percy, on Olympus."