"You're too heavy!" Grover said. "We're going down!"
We spiraled toward the ground, Grover doing his best to slow the fall.
We smashed into a photo-board, Grover's head going straight into the hole where tourists would put their faces, pretending to be Noo-Noo the Friendly Whale. Annabeth and I tumbled to the ground, banged up but alive. Ares's shield was still on my arm.
Once we caught our breath, Annabeth and I got Grover out of the photo-board and thanked him for saving our lives. I looked back at the Thrill Ride of Love. The water was subsiding. Our boat had been smashed to pieces against the gates.
A hundred yards away, at the entrance pool, the Cupids were still filming. The statues had swiveled so that their cameras were trained straight on us, the spotlights in our faces.
"Show's over!" I yelled. "Thank you! Good night!"
The Cupids turned back to their original positions. The lights shut off. The park went quiet and dark again, except for the gentle trickle of water into the Thrill Ride of Love's exit pool. I wondered if Olympus had gone to a commercial break, or if our ratings had been any good.
I hated being teased. I hated being tricked. And I had plenty of experience handling bullies who liked to do that stuff to me. I hefted the shield on my arm and turned to my friends. "We need to have a little talk with Ares."
16. WE TAKE A ZEBRA TO VEGAS
The war god was waiting for us in the diner parking lot.
"Well, well," he said. "You didn't get yourself killed."
"You knew it was a trap," I said.
Ares gave me a wicked grin. "Bet that crippled blacksmith was surprised when he netted a couple of stupid kids. You looked good on TV."
I shoved his shield at him. "You're a jerk."
Annabeth and Grover caught their breath.
Ares grabbed the shield and spun it in the air like pizza dough. It changed form, melting into a bulletproof vest. He slung it across his back.
"See that truck over there?" He pointed to an eighteen-wheeler parked across the street from the diner. "That's your ride. Take you straight to L.A., with one stop in Vegas."
The eighteen-wheeler had a sign on the back, which I could read only because it was reverse-printed white on black, a good combination for dyslexia: KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL: HUMANE ZOO TRANSPORT. WARNING: LIVE WILD ANIMALS.
I said, "You're kidding."
Ares snapped his fingers. The back door of the truck unlatched. "Free ride west, punk. Stop complaining. And here's a little something for doing the job."
He slung a blue nylon backpack off his handlebars and tossed it to me.
Inside were fresh clothes for all of us, twenty bucks in cash, a pouch full of golden drachmas, and a bag of Double Stuf Oreos.
I said, "I don't want your lousy—"
"Thank you, Lord Ares," Grover interrupted, giving me his best red-alert warning look. "Thanks a lot."
I gritted my teeth. It was probably a deadly insult to refuse something from a god, but I didn't want anything that Ares had touched. Reluctantly, I slung the backpack over my shoulder. I knew my anger was being caused by the war god's presence, but I was still itching to punch him in the nose. He reminded me of every bully I'd ever faced: Nancy Bobofit, Clarisse, Smelly Gabe, sarcastic teachers—every jerk who'd called me stupid in school or laughed at me when I'd gotten expelled.
I looked back at the diner, which had only a couple of customers now. The waitress who'd served us dinner was watching nervously out the window, like she was afraid Ares might hurt us. She dragged the fry cook out from the kitchen to see. She said something to him. He nodded, held up a little disposable camera and snapped a picture of us.
Great, I thought. We'll make the papers again tomorrow.
I imagined the headline: TWELVE-YEAR-OLD OUTLAW BEATS UP DEFENSELESS BIKER.
"You owe me one more thing," I told Ares, trying to keep my voice level. "You promised me information about my mother."
"You sure you can handle the news?" He kick-started his motorcycle. "She's not dead."
The ground seemed to spin beneath me. "What do you mean?"
"I mean she was taken away from the Minotaur before she could die. She was turned into a shower of gold, right? That's metamorphosis. Not death. She's being kept."
"You need to study war, punk. Hostages. You take somebody to control somebody else."
"Nobody's controlling me."
He laughed. "Oh yeah? See you around, kid."
I balled up my fists. "You're pretty smug, Lord Ares, for a guy who runs from Cupid statues."
Behind his sunglasses, fire glowed. I felt a hot wind in my hair. "We'll meet again, Percy Jackson. Next time you're in a fight, watch your back."
He revved his Harley, then roared off down Delancy Street.
Annabeth said, "That was not smart, Percy."
"I don't care."
"You don't want a god as your enemy. Especially not that god."
"Hey, guys," Grover said. "I hate to interrupt, but ..."
He pointed toward the diner. At the register, the last two customers were paying their check, two men in identical black coveralls, with a white logo on their backs that matched the one on the KINDNESS INTERNATIONAL truck.
"If we're taking the zoo express," Grover said, "we need to hurry."
I didn't like it, but we had no better option. Besides, I'd seen enough of Denver.
We ran across the street and climbed in the back of the big rig, closing the doors behind us.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. It was like the world's biggest pan of kitty litter.
The trailer was dark inside until I uncapped Anaklusmos. The blade cast a faint bronze light over a very sad scene. Sitting in a row of filthy metal cages were three of the most pathetic zoo animals I'd ever beheld: a zebra, a male albino lion, and some weird antelope thing I didn't know the name for.
Someone had thrown the lion a sack of turnips, which he obviously didn't want to eat. The zebra and the antelope had each gotten a Styrofoam tray of hamburger meat. The zebra's mane was matted with chewing gum, like somebody had been spitting on it in their spare time. The antelope had a stupid silver birthday balloon tied to one of his horns that read OVER THE HILL!
Apparently, nobody had wanted to get close enough to the lion to mess with him, but the poor thing was pacing around on soiled blankets, in a space way too small for him, panting from the stuffy heat of the trailer. He had flies buzzing around his pink eyes and his ribs showed through his white fur.
"This is kindness?" Grover yelled. "Humane zoo transport?"
He probably would've gone right back outside to beat up the truckers with his reed pipes, and I would've helped him, but just then the trucks engine roared to life, the trailer started shaking, and we were forced to sit down or fall down.
We huddled in the corner on some mildewed feed sacks, trying to ignore the smell and the heat and the flies. Grover talked to the animals in a series of goat bleats, but they just stared at him sadly. Annabeth was in favor of breaking the cages and freeing them on the spot, but I pointed out it wouldn't do much good until the truck stopped moving. Besides, I had a feeling we might look a lot better to the lion than those turnips.
I found a water jug and refilled their bowls, then used Anaklusmos to drag the mismatched food out of their cages. I gave the meat to the lion and the turnips to the zebra and the antelope.
Grover calmed the antelope down, while Annabeth used her knife to cut the balloon off his horn. She wanted to cut the gum out of the zebra's mane, too, but we decided that would be too risky with the truck bumping around. We told Grover to promise the animals we'd help them more in the morning, then we settled in for night.
Grover curled up on a turnip sack; Annabeth opened our bag of Double Stuf Oreos and nibbled on one halfheartedly; I tried to cheer myself up by concentrating on the fact that we were halfway to Los Angeles. Halfway to our destination. It was only June fourteenth. The solstice wasn't until the twenty-first. We could make it in plenty of time.
On the other hand, I had no idea what to expect next. The gods kept toying with me. At least Hephaestus had the decency to be honest about it—he'd put up cameras and advertised me as entertainment. But even when the cameras weren't rolling, I had a feeling my quest was being watched. I was a source of amusement for the gods.
"Hey," Annabeth said, "I'm sorry for freaking out back at the water park, Percy."
"It's just..." She shuddered. "Spiders."
"Because of the Arachne story," I guessed. "She got turned into a spider for challenging your mom to a weaving contest, right?"
Annabeth nodded. "Arachne's children have been taking revenge on the children of Athena ever since. If there's a spider within a mile of me, it'll find me. I hate the creepy little things. Anyway, I owe you."
"We're a team, remember?" I said. "Besides, Grover did the fancy flying."
I thought he was asleep, but he mumbled from the corner, "I was pretty amazing, wasn't I?"
Annabeth and I laughed.
She pulled apart an Oreo, handed me half. "In the Iris message ... did Luke really say nothing?"
I munched my cookie and thought about how to answer. The conversation via rainbow had bothered me all evening. "Luke said you and he go way back. He also said Grover wouldn't fail this time. Nobody would turn into a pine tree."
In the dim bronze light of the sword blade, it was hard to read their expressions.
Grover let out a mournful bray.
"I should've told you the truth from the beginning." His voice trembled. "I thought if you knew what a failure I was, you wouldn't want me along."
"You were the satyr who tried to rescue Thalia, the daughter of Zeus."
He nodded glumly.
"And the other two half-bloods Thalia befriended, the ones who got safely to camp ..." I looked at Annabeth. "That was you and Luke, wasn't it?"
She put down her Oreo, uneaten. "Like you said, Percy, a seven-year-old half-blood wouldn't have made it very far alone. Athena guided me toward help. Thalia was twelve. Luke was fourteen. They'd both run away from home, like me. They were happy to take me with them. They were ... amazing monster-fighters, even without training. We traveled north from Virginia without any real plans, fending off monsters for about two weeks before Grover found us."
"I was supposed to escort Thalia to camp," he said, sniffling. "Only Thalia. I had strict orders from Chiron: don't do anything that would slow down the rescue. We knew Hades was after her, see, but I couldn't just leave Luke and Annabeth by themselves. I thought ... I thought I could lead all three of them to safety. It was my fault the Kindly Ones caught up with us. I froze. I got scared on the way back to camp and took some wrong turns. If I'd just been a little quicker ..."
"Stop it," Annabeth said. "No one blames you. Thalia didn't blame you either."
"She sacrificed herself to save us," he said miserably, "Her death was my fault. The Council of Cloven Elders said so."
"Because you wouldn't leave two other half-bloods behind?" I said. "That's not fair."
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