Annabeth and Grover came around the corner, laughing, but stopped when they saw my face. Annabeth's smile faded. "What happened, Percy? What did Luke say?"

"Not much," I lied, my stomach feeling as empty as a Big Three cabin. "Come on, let's find some dinner."

A few minutes later, we were sitting at a booth in a gleaming chrome diner. All around us, families were eating burgers and drinking malts and sodas.

Finally the waitress came over. She raised her eyebrow skeptically. "Well?"

I said, "We, um, want to order dinner."

"You kids have money to pay for it?"

Grover's lower lip quivered. I was afraid he would start bleating, or worse, start eating the linoleum. Annabeth looked ready to pass out from hunger.

I was trying to think up a sob story for the waitress when a rumble shook the whole building; a motorcycle the size of a baby elephant had pulled up to the curb.

All conversation in the diner stopped. The motorcycle's headlight glared red. Its gas tank had flames painted on it, and a shotgun holster riveted to either side, complete with shotguns. The seat was leather—but leather that looked like ... well, Caucasian human skin.

The guy on the bike would've made pro wrestlers run for Mama. He was dressed in a red muscle shirt and black jeans and a black leather duster, with a hunting knife strapped to his thigh. He wore red wraparound shades, and he had the cruelest, most brutal face I'd ever seen— handsome, I guess, but wicked—with an oily black crew cut and cheeks that were scarred from many, many fights. The weird thing was, I felt like I'd seen his face somewhere before.

As he walked into the diner, a hot, dry wind blew through the place. All the people rose, as if they were hypnotized, but the biker waved his hand dismissively and they all sat down again. Everybody went back to their conversations. The waitress blinked, as if somebody had just pressed the rewind button on her brain. She asked us again, "You kids have money to pay for it?"

The biker said, "It's on me." He slid into our booth, which was way too small for him, and crowded Annabeth against the window.

He looked up at the waitress, who was gaping at him, and said, "Are you still here?"

He pointed at her, and she stiffened. She turned as if she'd been spun around, then marched back toward the kitchen.

The biker looked at me. I couldn't see his eyes behind the red shades, but bad feelings started boiling in my stomach. Anger, resentment, bitterness. I wanted to hit a wall. I wanted to pick a fight with somebody. Who did this guy think he was?

He gave me a wicked grin. "So you're old Seaweed's kid, huh?"

I should've been surprised, or scared, but instead I felt like I was looking at my stepdad, Gabe. I wanted to rip this guy's head off. "What's it to you?"

Annabeth's eyes flashed me a warning. "Percy, this is—"

The biker raised his hand.

"S'okay," he said. "I don't mind a little attitude. Long as you remember who's the boss. You know who I am, little cousin?"

Then it struck me why this guy looked familiar. He had the same vicious sneer as some of the kids at CampHalf-Blood, the ones from cabin five.

"You're Clarisse's dad," I said. "Ares, god of war."

Ares grinned and took off his shades. Where his eyes should've been, there was only fire, empty sockets glowing with miniature nuclear explosions. "That's right, punk. I heard you broke Clarisse's spear."

"She was asking for it."

"Probably. That's cool. I don't fight my kids' fights, you know? What I'm here for—I heard you were in town. I got a little proposition for you."

The waitress came back with heaping trays of food—cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings, and chocolate shakes.

Ares handed her a few gold drachmas.

She looked nervously at the coins. "But, these aren't..."

Ares pulled out his huge knife and started cleaning his fingernails. "Problem, sweetheart?"

The waitress swallowed, then left with the gold.

"You can't do that," I told Ares. "You can't just threaten people with a knife."

Ares laughed. "Are you kidding? I love this country. Best place since Sparta. Don't you carry a weapon, punk? You should. Dangerous world out there. Which brings me to my proposition. I need you to do me a favor."

"What favor could I do for a god?"

"Something a god doesn't have time to do himself. It's nothing much. I left my shield at an abandoned water park here in town. I was going on a little ... date with my girlfriend. We were interrupted. I left my shield behind. I want you to fetch it for me."

"Why don't you go back and get it yourself?"

The fire in his eye sockets glowed a little hotter.

"Why don't I turn you into a prairie dog and run you over with my Harley? Because I don't feel like it. A god is giving you an opportunity to prove yourself, Percy Jackson. Will you prove yourself a coward?" He leaned forward. "Or maybe you only fight when there's a river to dive into, so your daddy can protect you."

I wanted to punch this guy, but somehow, I knew he was waiting for that. Ares's power was causing my anger. He'd love it if I attacked. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction.

"We're not interested," I said. "We've already got a quest."

Ares's fiery eyes made me see things I didn't want to see—blood and smoke and corpses on the battlefield. "I know all about your quest, punk. When that item was first stolen, Zeus sent his best out looking for it: Apollo, Athena, Artemis, and me, naturally. If I couldn't sniff out a weapon that powerful ..." He licked his lips, as if the very thought of the master bolt made him hungry. "Well ... if I couldn't find it, you got no hope. Nevertheless, I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Your dad and I go way back. After all, I'm the one who told him my suspicions about old Corpse Breath."

"You told him Hades stole the bolt?"

"Sure. Framing somebody to start a war. Oldest trick in the book. I recognized it immediately. In a way, you got me to thank for your little quest."

"Thanks," I grumbled.

"Hey, I'm a generous guy. Just do my little job, and I'll help you on your way. I'll arrange a ride west for you and your friends."

"We're doing fine on our own."

"Yeah, right. No money. No wheels. No clue what you're up against. Help me out, and maybe I'll tell you something you need to know. Something about your mom."

"My mom?"

He grinned. "That got your attention. The water park is a mile west on Delancy. You can't miss it. Look for the Tunnel of Love ride."

"What interrupted your date?" I asked. "Something scare you off?"

Ares bared his teeth, but I'd seen his threatening look before on Clarisse. There was something false about it, almost like he was nervous.

"You're lucky you met me, punk, and not one of the other Olympians. They're not as forgiving of rudeness as I am. I'll meet you back here when you're done. Don't disappoint me."

After that I must have fainted, or fallen into a trance, because when I opened my eyes again, Ares was gone. I might've thought the conversation had been a dream, but Annabeth and Grover's expressions told me otherwise.

"Not good," Grover said. "Ares sought you out, Percy. This is not good."

I stared out the window. The motorcycle had disappeared.

Did Ares really know something about my mom, or was he just playing with me? Now that he was gone, all the anger had drained out of me. I realized Ares must love to mess with people's emotions. That was his power—cranking up the passions so badly, they clouded your ability to think.

"It's probably some kind of trick," I said. "Forget Ares. Let's just go."

"We can't," Annabeth said. "Look, I hate Ares as much as anybody, but you don't ignore the gods unless you want serious bad fortune. He wasn't kidding about turning you into a rodent."

I looked down at my cheeseburger, which suddenly didn't seem so appetizing. "Why does he need us?"

"Maybe it's a problem that requires brains," Annabeth said. "Ares has strength. That's all he has. Even strength has to bow to wisdom sometimes."

"But this water park ... he acted almost scared. What would make a war god run away like that?"

Annabeth and Grover glanced nervously at each other.

Annabeth said, "I'm afraid we'll have to find out."

The sun was sinking behind the mountains by the time we found the water park. Judging from the sign, it once had been called WATERLAND, but now some of the letters were smashed out, so it read WAT R A D.

The main gate was padlocked and topped with barbed wire. Inside, huge dry waterslides and tubes and pipes curled everywhere, leading to empty pools. Old tickets and advertisements fluttered around the asphalt. With night coming on, the place looked sad and creepy.

"If Ares brings his girlfriend here for a date," I said, staring up at the barbed wire, "I'd hate to see what she looks like."

"Percy," Annabeth warned. "Be more respectful."

"Why? I thought you hated Ares."

"He's still a god. And his girlfriend is very temperamental."

"You don't want to insult her looks," Grover added.

"Who is she? Echidna?"

"No, Aphrodite," Grover said, a little dreamily. "Goddess of love."

"I thought she was married to somebody," I said. "Hephaestus."

"What's your point?" he asked.

"Oh." I suddenly felt the need to change the subject. "So how do we get in?"

"Maia!" Grover's shoes sprouted wings.

He flew over the fence, did an unintended somersault in midair, then stumbled to a landing on the opposite side. He dusted off his jeans, as if he'd planned the whole thing. "You guys coming?"

Annabeth and I had to climb the old-fashioned way, holding down the barbed wire for each other as we crawled over the top.

The shadows grew long as we walked through the park, checking out the attractions. There was AnkleBiterIsland, Head Over Wedgie, and Dude, Where's My Swimsuit?

No monsters came to get us. Nothing made the slightest noise.

We found a souvenir shop that had been left open. Merchandise still lined the shelves: snow globes, pencils, postcards, and racks of—

"Clothes," Annabeth said. "Fresh clothes."

"Yeah," I said. "But you can't just—"

"Watch me."

She snatched an entire row of stuff of the racks and disappeared into the changing room. A few minutes later she came out in Waterland flower-print shorts, a big red Waterland T-shirt, and commemorative Waterland surf shoes. A Waterland backpack was slung over her shoulder, obviously stuffed with more goodies.

"What the heck." Grover shrugged. Soon, all three of us were decked out like walking advertisements for the defunct theme park.

We continued searching for the Tunnel of Love. I got the feeling that the whole park was holding its breath. "So Ares and Aphrodite," I said, to keep my mind off the growing dark, "they have a thing going?"

"That's old gossip, Percy," Annabeth told me. "Three-thousand-year-old gossip."

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