"No!"

"I'm a satyr," Grover said. "We don't have souls like humans do. He can torture me until I die, but he won't get me forever. I'll just be reincarnated as a flower or something. It's the best way."

"No." Annabeth drew her bronze knife. "You two go on. Grover, you have to protect Percy. You have to get your searcher's license and start your quest for Pan. Get his mom out of here. I'll cover you. I plan to go down fighting."

"No way," Grover said. "I'm staying behind."

"Think again, goat boy," Annabeth said.

"Stop it, both of you!" I felt like my heart was being ripped in two. They had both been with me through so much. I remembered Grover dive-bombing Medusa in the statue garden, and Annabeth saving us from Cerberus; we'd survived Hephaestus's Waterland ride, the St. Louis Arch, the Lotus Casino. I had spent thousands of miles worried that I'd be betrayed by a friend, but these friends would never do that. They had done nothing but save me, over and over, and now they wanted to sacrifice their lives for my mom.

"I know what to do," I said. "Take these."

I handed them each a pearl.

Annabeth said, "But, Percy ..."

I turned and faced my mother. I desperately wanted to sacrifice myself and use the last pearl on her, but I knew what she would say. She would never allow it. I had to get the bolt back to Olympus and tell Zeus the truth. I had to stop the war. She would never forgive me if I saved her instead. I thought about the prophecy made at Half-Blood Hill, what seemed like a million years ago. You will fail to save what matters most in the end.

"I'm sorry," I told her. "I'll be back. I'll find a way."

The smug look on Hades's face faded. He said, "Godling ... ?"

"I'll find your helm, Uncle," I told him. "I'll return it. Remember about Charon's pay raise."

"Do not defy me—"

"And it wouldn't hurt to play with Cerberus once in a while. He likes red rubber balls."

"Percy Jackson, you will not—"

I shouted, "Now, guys!"

We smashed the pearls at our feet. For a scary moment, nothing happened.

Hades yelled, "Destroy them!"

The army of skeletons rushed forward, swords out, guns clicking to full automatic. The Furies lunged, their whips bursting into flame.

Just as the skeletons opened fire, the pearl fragments at my feet exploded with a burst of green light and a gust of fresh sea wind. I was encased in a milky white sphere, which was starting to float off the ground.

Annabeth and Grover were right behind me. Spears and bullets sparked harmlessly off the pearl bubbles as we floated up. Hades yelled with such rage, the entire fortress shook and I knew it was not going to be a peaceful night in L.A.

"Look up.'" Grover yelled. "We're going to crash!"

Sure enough, we were racing right toward the stalactites, which I figured would pop our bubbles and skewer us.

"How do you control these things?" Annabeth shouted.

"I don't think you do!" I shouted back.

We screamed as the bubbles slammed into the ceiling and ... Darkness.

Were we dead?

No, I could still feel the racing sensation. We were going up, right through solid rock as easily as an air bubble in water. That was the power of the pearls, I realized—What belongs to the sea will always return to the sea.

For a few moments, I couldn't see anything outside the smooth walls of my sphere, then my pearl broke through on the ocean floor. The two other milky spheres, Annabeth and Grover, kept pace with me as we soared upward through the water. And—ker-blam!

We exploded on the surface, in the middle of the Santa MonicaBay, knocking a surfer off his board with an indignant, "Dude!"

I grabbed Grover and hauled him over to a life buoy. I caught Annabeth and dragged her over too. A curious shark was circling us, a great white about eleven feet long.

I said, "Beat it."

The shark turned and raced away.

The surfer screamed something about bad mushrooms and paddled away from us as fast as he could.

Somehow, I knew what time it was: early morning, June 21, the day of the summer solstice.

In the distance, Los Angeles was on fire, plumes of smoke rising from neighborhoods all over the city. There had been an earthquake, all right, and it was Hades's fault. He was probably sending an army of the dead after me right now.

But at the moment, the Underworld wasn't my biggest problem.

I had to get to shore. I had to get Zeus's thunderbolt back to Olympus. Most of all, I had to have a serious conversation with the god who'd tricked me.

20. I BATTLE MY JERK RELATIVE

A Coast Guard boat picked us up, but they were too busy to keep us for long, or to wonder how three kids in street clothes had gotten out into the middle of the bay. There was a disaster to mop up. Their radios were jammed with distress calls.

They dropped us off at the Santa Monica Pier with towels around our shoulders and water bottles that said I'M A JUNIOR COAST GUARD! and sped off to save more people.

Our clothes were sopping wet, even mine. When the Coast Guard boat had appeared, I'd silently prayed they wouldn't pick me out of the water and find me perfectly dry, which might've raised some eyebrows. So I'd willed myself to get soaked. Sure enough, my usual waterproof magic had abandoned me. I was also barefoot, because I'd given my shoes to Grover. Better the Coast Guard wonder why one of us was barefoot than wonder why one of us had hooves.

After reaching dry land, we stumbled down the beach, watching the city burn against a beautiful sunrise. I felt as if I'd just come back from the dead—which I had. My backpack was heavy with Zeus's master bolt. My heart was even heavier from seeing my mother.

"I don't believe it," Annabeth said. "We went all that way—"

"It was a trick," I said. "A strategy worthy of Athena."

"Hey," she warned.

"You get it, don't you?"

She dropped her eyes, her anger fading. "Yeah. I get it."

"Well, I don't!" Grover complained. "Would somebody—"

"Percy ..." Annabeth said. "I'm sorry about your mother. I'm so sorry...."

I pretended not to hear her. If I talked about my mother, I was going to start crying like a little kid.

"The prophecy was right," I said. "You shall go west and face the god who has turned.' But it wasn't Hades. Hades didn't want war among the Big Three. Someone else pulled off the theft. Someone stole Zeus's master bolt, and Hades's helm, and framed me because I'm Poseidon's kid. Poseidon will get blamed by both sides. By sundown today, there will be a three-way war. And I'll have caused it."

Grover shook his head, mystified. "But who would be that sneaky? Who would want war that bad?"

I stopped in my tracks, looking down the beach. "Gee, let me think."

There he was, waiting for us, in his black leather duster and his sunglasses, an aluminum baseball bat propped on his shoulder. His motorcycle rumbled beside him, its headlight turning the sand red.

"Hey, kid," Ares said, seeming genuinely pleased to see me. "You were supposed to die."

"You tricked me," I said. "You stole the helm and the master bolt."

Ares grinned. "Well, now, I didn't steal them personally. Gods taking each other's symbols of power—that's a big no-no. But you're not the only hero in the world who can run errands."

"Who did you use? Clarisse? She was there at the winter solstice."

The idea seemed to amuse him. "Doesn't matter. The point is, kid, you're impeding the war effort. See, you've got to die in the Underworld. Then Old Seaweed will be mad at Hades for killing you. Corpse Breath will have Zeus's master bolt, so Zeus'll be mad at him. And Hades is still looking for this ..."

From his pocket he took out a ski cap—the kind bank robbers wear—and placed it between the handlebars of his bike. Immediately, the cap transformed into an elaborate bronze war helmet.

"The helm of darkness," Grover gasped.

"Exactly," Ares said. "Now where was I? Oh yeah, Hades will be mad at both Zeus and Poseidon, because he doesn't know who took this. Pretty soon, we got a nice little three-way slugfest going." 

"But they're your family!" Annabeth protested.

Ares shrugged. "Best kind of war. Always the bloodiest. Nothing like watching your relatives fight, I always say."

"You gave me the backpack in Denver," I said. "The master bolt was in there the whole time."

"Yes and no," Ares said. "It's probably too complicated for your little mortal brain to follow, but the backpack is the master bolt's sheath, just morphed a bit. The bolt is connected to it, sort of like that sword you got, kid. It always returns to your pocket, right?"

I wasn't sure how Ares knew about that, but I guess a god of war had to make it his business to know about weapons.

"Anyway," Ares continued, "I tinkered with the magic a bit, so the bolt would only return to the sheath once you reached the Underworld. You get close to Hades.... Bingo, you got mail. If you died along the way—no loss. I still had the weapon."

"But why not just keep the master bolt for yourself?" I said. "Why send it to Hades?"

Ares got a twitch in his jaw. For a moment, it was almost as if he were listening to another voice, deep inside his head. "Why didn't I ... yeah ... with that kind of firepower ..."

He held the trance for one second ... two seconds....

I exchanged nervous looks with Annabeth.

Ares's face cleared. "I didn't want the trouble. Better to have you caught redhanded, holding the thing."

"You're lying," I said. "Sending the bolt to the Underworld wasn't your idea, was it?"

"Of course it was!" Smoke drifted up from his sunglasses, as if they were about to catch fire.

"You didn't order the theft," I guessed. "Someone else sent a hero to steal the two items. Then, when Zeus sent you to hunt him down, you caught the thief. But you didn't turn him over to Zeus. Something convinced you to let him go. You kept the items until another hero could come along and complete the delivery. That thing in the pit is ordering you around."

"I am the god of war! I take orders from no one! I don't have dreams!"

I hesitated. "Who said anything about dreams?"

Ares looked agitated, but he tried to cover it with a smirk.

"Let's get back to the problem at hand, kid. You're alive. I can't have you taking that bolt to Olympus. You just might get those hardheaded idiots to listen to you. So I've got to kill you. Nothing personal."

He snapped his fingers. The sand exploded at his feet and out charged a wild boar, even larger and uglier than the one whose head hung above the door of cabin seven at CampHalf-Blood. The beast pawed the sand, glaring at me with beady eyes as it lowered its razor-sharp tusks and waited for the command to kill.

I stepped into the surf. "Fight me yourself, Ares."

He laughed, but I heard a little edge to his laughter ... an uneasiness. "You've only got one talent, kid, running away. You ran from the Chimera. You ran from the Underworld. You don't have what it takes."

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