"And my daughter?"
"I couldn't leave her," I admitted, my throat dry. "Or Grover," I added quickly. "Or—"
"Spare me." Athena stepped close to me, and I could feel her aura of power making my skin itch. "I once warned you, Percy Jackson, that to save a friend you would destroy the world. Perhaps I was mistaken. You seem to have saved both your friends and the world. But think very carefully about how you proceed from here. I have given you the benefit of the doubt. Don't mess up."
Just to prove her point, she erupted in a column of flame, charring the front of my shirt.
Annabeth was waiting for me at the elevator. "Why do you smell like smoke?"
"Long story," I said. Together we made our way down to the street level. Neither of us said a word. The music was awful—Neil Diamond or something. I should've made that part of my gift from the gods: better elevator tunes.
When we got into the lobby, I found my mother and Paul arguing with the bald security guy, who'd returned to his post.
"I'm telling you," my mom yelled, "we have to go up! My son—" Then she saw me and her eyes widened. "Percy!"
She hugged the breath right out of me.
"We saw the building lit up blue," she said. "But then you didn't come down. You went up hours ago!"
"She was getting a bit anxious," Paul said drily.
"I'm all right," I promised as my mom hugged Annabeth. "Everything's okay now."
"Mr. Blofis," Annabeth said, "that was wicked sword work."
Paul shrugged. "It seemed like the thing to do. But Percy, is this really . . . I mean, this story about the six hundredth floor?"
"Olympus," I said. "Yeah."
Paul looked at the ceiling with a dreamy expression. "I'd like to see that."
"Paul," my mom chided. "It's not for mortals. Anyway, the important thing is we're safe. All of us."
I was about to relax. Everything felt perfect. Annabeth and I were okay. My mom and Paul had survived. Olympus was saved.
But the life of a demigod is never so easy. Just then Nico ran in from the street, and his face told me something was wrong.
"It's Rachel," he said. "I just ran into her down on 32nd Street."
Annabeth frowned. "What's she done this time?"
"It's where she's gone," Nico said. "I told her she would die if she tried, but she insisted. She just took Blackjack and—"
"She took my pegasus?" I demanded.
Nico nodded. "She's heading to Half-Blood Hill. She said she had to get to camp."
I AM DUMPED
Nobody steals my pegasus. Not even Rachel. I wasn't sure if I was more angry or amazed or worried.
"What was she thinking?" Annabeth said as we ran for the river. Unfortunately, I had a pretty good idea, and it filled me with dread.
The traffic was horrible. Everybody was out on the streets gawking at the war zone damage. Police sirens wailed on every block. There was no possibility of catching a cab, and the pegasi had flown away. I would've settled for some Party Ponies, but they had disappeared along with most of the root beer in Midtown. So we ran, pushing through mobs of dazed mortals that clogged the sidewalks.
"She'll never get through the defenses," Annabeth said. "Peleus will eat her."
I hadn't considered that. The Mist wouldn't fool Rachel like it would most people. She'd be able to find the camp no problem, but I'd been hoping the magical boundaries would just keep her out like a force field. It hadn't occurred to me that Peleus might attack.
"We've got to hurry." I glanced at Nico. "I don't suppose you could conjure up some skeleton horses."
He wheezed as he ran. "So tired . . . couldn't summon a dog bone."
Finally we scrambled over the embankment to the shore, and I let out a loud whistle. I hated doing it. Even with the sand dollar I'd given the East River for a magic cleaning, the water here was pretty polluted. I didn't want to make any sea animals sick, but they came to my call.
Three wake lines appeared in the gray water, and a pod of hippocampi broke the surface. They whinnied unhappily, shaking the river muck from their manes. They were beautiful creatures, with multicolored fish tails, and the heads and forelegs of white stallions. The hippocampus in front was much bigger than the others—a ride fit for a Cyclops.
"Rainbow!" I called. "How's it going, buddy?"
He neighed a complaint.
"Yeah, I'm sorry," I said. "But it's an emergency. We need to get to camp."
"Tyson?" I said. "Tyson is fine! I'm sorry he's not here. He's a big general now in the Cyclops army."
"Yeah, I'm sure he'll still bring you apples. Now, about that ride . . ."
In no time, Annabeth, Nico, and I were zipping up the East River faster than Jet Skis. We sped under the Throgs Neck Bridge and headed for Long Island Sound.
It seemed like forever until we saw the beach at camp. We thanked the hippocampi and waded ashore, only to find Argus waiting for us. He stood in the sand with his arms crossed, his hundred eyes glaring at us.
"Is she here?" I asked.
He nodded grimly.
"Is everything okay?" Annabeth said.
Argus shook his head.
We followed him up the trail. It was surreal being back at camp, because everything looked so peaceful: no burning buildings, no wounded fighters. The cabins were bright in the sunshine, and the fields glittered with dew. But the place was mostly empty.
Up at the Big House, something was definitely wrong. Green light was shooting out all the windows, just like I'd seen in my dream about May Castellan. Mist—the magical kind—swirled around the yard. Chiron lay on a horse-size stretcher by the volleyball pit, a bunch of satyrs standing around him. Blackjack cantered nervously in the grass.
Don't blame me, boss! he pleaded when he saw me. The weird girl made me do it!
Rachel Elizabeth Dare stood at the bottom of the porch steps. Her arms were raised like she was waiting for someone inside the house to throw her a ball.
"What's she doing?" Annabeth demanded. "How did she get past the barriers?"
"She flew," one of the satyrs said, looking accusingly at Blackjack. "Right past the dragon, right through the magic boundaries."
"Rachel!" I called, but the satyrs stopped me when I tried to go any closer.
"Percy, don't," Chiron warned. He winced as he tried to move. His left arm was in a sling, his two back legs were in splints, and his head was wrapped in bandages. "You can't interrupt."
"I thought you explained things to her!"
"I did. And I invited her here."
I stared at him in disbelief. "You said you'd never let anyone try again! You said—"
"I know what I said, Percy. But I was wrong. Rachel had a vision about the curse of Hades. She believes it may be lifted now. She convinced me she deserves a chance."
"And if the curse isn't lifted? If Hades hasn't gotten to that yet, she'll go crazy!"
The Mist swirled around Rachel. She shivered like she was going into shock.
"Hey!" I shouted. "Stop!"
I ran toward her, ignoring the satyrs. I got within ten feet and hit something like an invisible beach ball. I bounced back and landed in the grass.
Rachel opened her eyes and turned. She looked like she was sleepwalking—like she could see me, but only in a dream.
"It's all right." Her voice sounded far away. "This is why I've come."
"You'll be destroyed!"
She shook her head. "This is where I belong, Percy. I finally understand why."
It sounded too much like what May Castellan had said. I had to stop her, but I couldn't even get to my feet.
The house rumbled. The door flew open and green light poured out. I recognized the warm musty smell of snakes.
Mist curled into a hundred smoky serpents, slithering up the porch columns, curling around the house. Then the Oracle appeared in the doorway.
The withered mummy shuffled forward in her rainbow dress. She looked even worse than usual, which is saying a lot. Her hair was falling out in clumps. Her leathery skin was cracking like the seat of a worn-out bus. Her glassy eyes stared blankly into space, but I got the creepiest feeling she was being drawn straight toward Rachel.
Rachel held out her arms. She didn't look scared.
"You've waited too long," Rachel said. "But I'm here now."
The sun blazed more brightly. A man appeared above the porch, floating in the air—a blond dude in a white toga, with sunglasses and a cocky smile.
"Apollo," I said.
He winked at me but held up his finger to his lips.
"Rachel Elizabeth Dare," he said. "You have the gift of prophecy. But it is also a curse. Are you sure you want this?"
Rachel nodded. "It's my destiny."
"Do you accept the risks?"
"Then proceed," the god said.
Rachel closed her eyes. "I accept this role. I pledge myself to Apollo, God of Oracles. I open my eyes to the future and embrace the past. I accept the spirit of Delphi, Voice of the Gods, Speaker of Riddles, Seer of Fate."
I didn't know where she was getting the words, but they flowed out of her as the Mist thickened. A green column of smoke, like a huge python, uncoiled from the mummy's mouth and slithered down the stairs, curling affectionately around Rachel's feet. The Oracle's mummy crumbled, falling away until it was nothing but a pile of dust in an old tie-dyed dress. Mist enveloped Rachel in a column.
For a moment I couldn't see her at all. Then the smoke cleared.
Rachel collapsed and curled into the fetal position. Annabeth, Nico, and I rushed forward, but Apollo said, "Stop! This is the most delicate part."
"What's going on?" I demanded. "What do you mean?"
Apollo studied Rachel with concern. "Either the spirit takes hold, or it doesn't."
"And if it doesn't?" Annabeth asked.
"Five syllables," Apollo said, counting them on his fingers. "That would be real bad."
Despite Apollo's warning, I ran forward and knelt over Rachel. The smell of the attic was gone. The Mist sank into the ground and the green light faded. But Rachel was still pale. She was barely breathing.
Then her eyes fluttered open. She focused on me with difficulty. "Percy."
"Are you okay?"
She tried to sit up. "Ow." She pressed her hands to her temples.
"Rachel," Nico said, "your life aura almost faded completely. I could see you dying."
"I'm all right," she murmured. "Please, help me up. The visions—they're a little disorienting."
"Are you sure you're okay?" I asked.
Apollo drifted down from the porch. "Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce the new Oracle of Delphi."
"You're kidding," Annabeth said.
Rachel managed a weak smile. "It's a little surprising to me too, but this is my fate. I saw it when I was in New York. I know why I was born with true sight. I was meant to become the Oracle."
I blinked. "You mean you can tell the future now?"