"Percy's right," Annabeth said. "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for you, Grover. Neither would Luke. We don't care what the council says."
Grover kept sniffling in the dark. "It's just my luck. I'm the lamest satyr ever, and I find the two most powerful half-bloods of the century, Thalia and Percy."
"You're not lame," Annabeth insisted. "You've got more courage than any satyr I've ever met. Name one other who would dare go to the Underworld. I bet Percy is really glad you're here right now."
She kicked me in the shin.
"Yeah," I said, which I would've done even without the kick. "It's not luck that you found Thalia and me, Grover. You've got the biggest heart of any satyr ever. You're a natural searcher. That's why you'll be the one who finds Pan."
I heard a deep, satisfied sigh. I waited for Grover to say something, but his breathing only got heavier. When the sound turned to snoring, I realized he'd fallen sleep.
"How does he do that?" I marveled.
"I don't know," Annabeth said. "But that was really a nice thing you told him."
"I meant it."
We rode in silence for a few miles, bumping around on the feed sacks. The zebra munched a turnip. The lion licked the last of the hamburger meat off his lips and looked at me hopefully.
Annabeth rubbed her necklace like she was thinking deep, strategic thoughts.
"That pine-tree bead," I said. "Is that from your first year?"
She looked. She hadn't realized what she was doing.
"Yeah," she said. "Every August, the counselors pick the most important event of the summer, and they paint it on that year's beads. I've got Thalia's pine tree, a Greek trireme on fire, a centaur in a prom dress—now that was a weird summer...."
"And the college ring is your father's?"
"That's none of your—" She stopped herself. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."
"You don't have to tell me."
"No ... it's okay." She took a shaky breath. "My dad sent it to me folded up in a letter, two summers ago. The ring was, like, his main keepsake from Athena. He wouldn't have gotten through his doctoral program at Harvard without her.... That's a long story. Anyway, he said he wanted me to have it. He apologized for being a jerk, said he loved me and missed me. He wanted me to come home and live with him."
"That doesn't sound so bad."
"Yeah, well... the problem was, I believed him. I tried to go home for that school year, but my stepmom was the same as ever. She didn't want her kids put in danger by living with a freak. Monsters attacked. We argued. Monsters attacked. We argued. I didn't even make it through winter break. I called Chiron and came right back to CampHalf-Blood."
"You think you'll ever try living with your dad again?"
She wouldn't meet my eyes. "Please. I'm not into self-inflicted pain."
"You shouldn't give up," I told her. "You should write him a letter or something."
"Thanks for the advice," she said coldly, "but my father's made his choice about who he wants to live with."
We passed another few miles of silence.
"So if the gods fight," I said, "will things line up the way they did with the Trojan War? Will it be Athena versus Poseidon?"
She put her head against the backpack Ares had given us, and closed her eyes. "I don't know what my mom will do. I just know I'll fight next to you."
"Because you're my friend, Seaweed Brain. Any more stupid questions?"
I couldn't think of an answer for that. Fortunately I didn't have to. Annabeth was asleep.
I had trouble following her example, with Grover snoring and an albino lion staring hungrily at me, but eventually I closed my eyes.
* * *
My nightmare started out as something I'd dreamed a million times before: I was being forced to take a standardized test while wearing a straitjacket. All the other kids were going out to recess, and the teacher kept saying, Come on, Percy. You're not stupid, are you? Pick up your pencil.
Then the dream strayed from the usual.
I looked over at the next desk and saw a girl sitting there, also wearing a straitjacket. She was my age, with unruly black, punk-style hair, dark eyeliner around her stormy green eyes, and freckles across her nose. Somehow, I knew who she was. She was Thalia, daughter of Zeus.
She struggled against the straitjacket, glared at me in frustration, and snapped, Well, Seaweed Brain? One of us has to get out of here.
She's right, my dream-self thought. I'm going back to that cavern. I'm going to give Hades a piece of my mind.
The straitjacket melted off me. I fell through the classroom floor. The teacher's voice changed until it was cold and evil, echoing from the depths of a great chasm.
Percy Jackson, it said. Yes, the exchange went well, 1 see.
I was back in the dark cavern, spirits of the dead drifting around me. Unseen in the pit, the monstrous thing was speaking, but this time it wasn't addressing me. The numbing power of its voice seemed directed somewhere else.
And he suspects nothing? it asked.
Another voice, one I almost recognized, answered at my shoulder. Nothing, my lord. He is as ignorant as the rest.
I looked over, but no one was there. The speaker was invisible.
Deception upon deception, the thing in the pit mused aloud. Excellent.
Truly, my lord, said the voice next to me, you are well-named the Crooked One. But was it really necessary? I could have brought you what I stole directly —
You? the monster said in scorn. You have already shown your limits. You would have failed me completely had I not intervened.
But, my lord—
Peace, little servant. Our six months have bought us much. Zeus's anger has grown. Poseidon has played his most desperate card. Now we shall use it against him. Shortly you shall have the reward you wish, and your revenge. As soon as both items are delivered into my hands ... but wait. He is here.
What? The invisible servant suddenly sounded tense. You summoned him, my lord?
No. The full force of the monsters attention was now pouring over me, freezing me in place. Blast his father's blood—he is too changeable, too unpredictable. The boy brought himself hither.
Impossible! the servant cried.
For a weakling such as you, perhaps, the voice snarled. Then its cold power turned back on me. So ... you wish to dream of your quest, young half-blood? Then I will oblige.
The scene changed.
I was standing in a vast throne room with black marble walls and bronze floors. The empty, horrid throne was made from human bones fused together. Standing at the foot of the dais was my mother, frozen in shimmering golden light, her arms outstretched.
I tried to step toward her, but my legs wouldn't move. I reached for her, only to realize that my hands were withering to bones. Grinning skeletons in Greek armor crowded around me, draping me with silk robes, wreathing my head with laurels that smoked with Chimera poison, burning into my scalp.
The evil voice began to laugh. Hail, the conquering hero!
I woke with a start.
Grover was shaking my shoulder. "The truck's stopped," he said. "We think they're coming to check on the animals."
"Hide!" Annabeth hissed.
She had it easy. She just put on her magic cap and disappeared. Grover and I had to dive behind feed sacks and hope we looked like turnips.
The trailer doors creaked open. Sunlight and heat poured in.
"Man!" one of the truckers said, waving his hand in front of his ugly nose. "I wish I hauled appliances." He climbed inside and poured some water from a jug into the animals' dishes.
"You hot, big boy?" he asked the lion, then splashed the rest of the bucket right in the lion's face.
The lion roared in indignation.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the man said.
Next to me, under the turnip sacks, Grover tensed. For a peace-loving herbivore, he looked downright murderous.
The trucker threw the antelope a squashed-looking Happy Meal bag. He smirked at the zebra. "How ya doin', Stripes? Least we'll be getting rid of you this stop. You like magic shows? You're gonna love this one. They're gonna saw you in half!"
The zebra, wild-eyed with fear, looked straight at me.
There was no sound, but as clear as day, I heard it say: Free me, lord. Please.
I was too stunned to react.
There was a loud knock, knock, knock on the side of the trailer.
The trucker inside with us yelled, "What do you want, Eddie?"
A voice outside—it must've been Eddie's—shouted back, "Maurice? What'd ya say?"
"What are you banging for?"
Knock, knock, knock.
Outside, Eddie yelled, "What banging?"
Our guy Maurice rolled his eyes and went back outside, cursing at Eddie for being an idiot.
A second later, Annabeth appeared next to me. She must've done the banging to get Maurice out of the trailer. She said, "This transport business can't be legal."
"No kidding," Grover said. He paused, as if listening. "The lion says these guys are animal smugglers!"
That's right, the zebra's voice said in my mind.
"We've got to free them!" Grover said. He and Annabeth both looked at me, waiting for my lead.
I'd heard the zebra talk, but not the lion. Why? Maybe it was another learning disability ... I could only understand zebras? Then I thought: horses. What had Annabeth said about Poseidon creating horses? Was a zebra close enough to a horse? Was that why I could understand it?
The zebra said, Open my cage, lord. Please. I'll be fine after that.
Outside, Eddie and Maurice were still yelling at each other, but I knew they'd be coming inside to torment the animals again any minute. I grabbed Riptide and slashed the lock off the zebra's cage.
The zebra burst out. It turned to me and bowed. Thank you, lord.
Grover held up his hands and said something to the zebra in goat talk, like a blessing.
Just as Maurice was poking his head back inside to check out the noise, the zebra leaped over him and into the street. There was yelling and screaming and cars honking. We rushed to the doors of the trailer in time to see the zebra galloping down a wide boulevard lined with hotels and casinos and neon signs. We'd just released a zebra in Las Vegas.
Maurice and Eddie ran after it, with a few policemen running after them, shouting, "Hey! You need a permit for that!"
"Now would be a good time to leave," Annabeth said.
"The other animals first," Grover said.
I cut the locks with my sword. Grover raised his hands and spoke the same goat-blessing he'd used for the zebra.
"Good luck," I told the animals. The antelope and the lion burst out of their cages and went off together into the streets.
Some tourists screamed. Most just backed off and took pictures, probably thinking it was some kind of stunt by one of the casinos.
"Will the animals be okay?" I asked Grover. "I mean, the desert and all—"
"Don't worry," he said. "I placed a satyr's sanctuary on them."
"Meaning they'll reach the wild safely," he said. "They'll find water, food, shade, whatever they need until they find a safe place to live."
"Why can't you place a blessing like that on us?" I asked.