"I don't know," Grover said. "I think somebody would know if Kronos had re-formed. The gods would be more nervous. But still, it's weird, you having a nightmare the same night as Zoe. It's almost like—"
"They're connected," I said.
Over in the frozen meadow, a satyr skidded on his hooves as he chased after a redheaded tree nymph. She giggled and held out her arms as he ran toward her. Pop! She turned into a Scotch pine and he kissed the trunk at top speed,
"Ah, love," Grover said dreamily.
I thought about Zoe's nightmare, which she'd had only a few hours after mine.
"I've got to talk to Zoe," I said.
"Um, before you do…" Grover took something out of his coat pocket. It was a three-fold display like a travel brochure. "You remember what you said—about how it was weird the Hunters just happened to show up at Westover Hall? I think they might've been scouting us."
"Scouting us? What do you mean?"
He gave me the brochure. It was about the Hunters of Artemis. The front read, A WISE CHOICE FOR YOUR FUTURE! Inside were pictures of young maidens doing hunter stuff, chasing monsters, shooting bows. There were captions like: HEALTH BENEFITS: IMMORTALITY AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU! and A BOY-FREE TOMORROW!
"I found that in Annabeth's backpack," Grover said.
I stared at him. "I don't understand."
"Well, it seems to me… maybe Annabeth was thinking about joining."
I'd like to say I took the news well.
The truth was, I wanted to strangle the Hunters of Artemis one eternal maiden at a time. The rest of the day I tried to keep busy, but I was worried sick about Annabeth. I went to javelin-throwing class, but the Ares camper in charge chewed me out after I got distracted and threw the javelin at the target before he got out of the way. I apologized for the hole in his pants, but he still sent me packing.
I visited the pegasus stables, but Silena Beauregard from the Aphrodite cabin was having an argument with one of the Hunters, and I decided I'd better not get involved.
After that, I sat in the empty chariot stands and sulked. Down at the archery fields, Chiron was conducting target practice. I knew he'd be the best person to talk to. Maybe he could give me some advice, but something held me back. I had a feeling Chiron would try to protect me, like he always did. He might not tell me everything he knew.
I looked the other direction. At the top of Half-Blood Hill, Mr. D and Argus were feeding the baby dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece.
Then it occurred to me: no one would be in the Big House. There was someone else… something else I could ask for guidance.
My blood was humming in my ears as I ran into the house and took the stairs. I'd only done this once before, and I still had nightmares about it. I opened the trap door and stepped into the attic.
The room was dark and dusty and cluttered with junk, just like I remembered. There were shields with monster bites out of them, and swords bent in the shapes of daemon heads, and a bunch of taxidermy, like a stuffed harpy and a bright orange python.
Over by the window, sitting on a three-legged stool, was the shriveled-up mummy of an old lady in a tie-dyed hippie dress. The Oracle.
I made myself walk toward her. I waited for green mist to billow from the mummy's mouth, like it had before, but nothing happened.
"Hi," I said. "Uh, what's up?"
I winced at how stupid that sounded. Not much could be "up" when you're dead and stuck in the attic. But I knew the spirit of the Oracle was in there somewhere. I could feel a cold presence in the room, like a coiled sleeping snake.
"I have a question," I said a little louder. "I need to know about Annabeth. How can I save her?"
No answer. The sun slanted through the dirty attic window, lighting the dust motes dancing in the air.
I waited longer.
Then I got angry. I was being stonewalled by a corpse.
"All right," I said. "Fine. I'll figure it out myself."
I turned and bumped into a big table full of souvenirs. It seemed more cluttered than the last time I was here. Heroes stored all kinds of stuff in the attic: quest trophies they no longer wanted to keep in their cabins, or stuff that held painful memories. I knew Luke had stored a dragon claw somewhere up here—the one that had scarred his face.
There was a broken sword hilt labeled: This broke and Leroy got killed. 1999.
Then I noticed a pink silk scarf with a label attached to it. I picked up the tag and tried to read it:
SCARF OF THE GODDESS APHRODITE
RECOVERED AT WATERLAND, DENVER, CO.,
BY ANNABETH CHASE AND PERCY JACKSON
I stared at the scarf. I'd totally forgotten about it. Two years ago, Annabeth had ripped this scarf out of my hands and said something like, Oh, no. No love magic for you!
I'd just assumed she'd thrown it away. And yet here it was. She'd kept it all this time? And why had she stashed it in the attic?
I turned to the mummy. She hadn't moved, but the shadows across her face made it look like she was smiling gruesomely.
I dropped the scarf and tried not to run toward the exit.
That night after dinner, I was seriously ready to beat the Hunters at capture the flag. It was going to be a small game: only thirteen Hunters, including Bianca di Angelo, and about the same number of campers.
Zoe Nightshade looked pretty upset. She kept glancing resentfully at Chiron, like she couldn't believe he was making her do this. The other Hunters didn't look too happy, either. Unlike last night, they weren't laughing or joking around. They just huddled together in the dining pavilion, whispering nervously to each other as they strapped on their armor. Some of them even looked like they'd been crying. I guess Zoe had told them about her nightmare.
On our team, we had Beckendorf and two other Hephaestus guys, a few from the Ares cabin (though it still seemed strange that Clarisse wasn't around), the Stoll brothers and Nico from Hermes cabin, and a few Aphrodite kids. It was weird that the Aphrodite cabin wanted to play. Usually they sat on the sidelines, chatted, and checked their reflections in the river and stuff, but when they heard we were fighting the Hunters, they were raring to go.
"I'll show them 'love is worthless,'" Silena Beauregard grumbled as she strapped on her armor. "I'll pulverize them!"
That left Thalia and me.
"I'll take the offense," Thalia volunteered. "You take defense."
"Oh." I hesitated, because I'd been about to say the exact same thing, only reversed. "Don't you think with your shield and all, you'd be better defense?"
Thalia already had Aegis on her arm, and even our own teammates were giving her a wide berth, trying not to cower before the bronze head of Medusa.
"Well, I was thinking it would make better offense," Thalia said. "Besides, you've had more practice at defense."
I wasn't sure if she was teasing me. I'd had some pretty bad experiences with defense on capture the flag. My first year, Annabeth had put me out as a kind of bait, and I'd almost been gored to death with spears and killed by a hellhound.
"Yeah, no problem," I lied.
"Cool." Thalia turned to help some of the Aphrodite kids, who were having trouble suiting up their armor without breaking their nails. Nico di Angelo ran up to me with a big grin on his face.
"Percy, this is awesome!" His blue-feathered bronze helmet was falling in his eyes, and his breastplate was about six sizes too big. I wondered if there was any way I'd looked that ridiculous when I'd first arrived. Unfortunately, I probably had.
Nico lifted his sword with effort. "Do we get to kill the other team?"
"But the Hunters are immortal, right?"
"That's only if they don't fall in battle. Besides—"
"It would be awesome if we just, like, resurrected as soon as we were killed, so we could keep fighting, and—"
"Nico, this is serious. Real swords. These can hurt."
He stared at me, a little disappointed, and I realized that I'd just sounded like my mother. Whoa. Not a good sign.
I patted Nico on the shoulder. "Hey, it's cool. Just follow the team. Stay out of Zoe's way. We'll have a blast."
Chiron's hoof thundered on the pavilion floor.
"Heroes!" he called. "You know the rules! The creek is the boundary line. Blue team—Camp Half-Blood—shall take the west woods. Hunters of Artemis—red team—shall take the east woods. I will serve as referee and battlefield medic. No intentional maiming, please! All magic items are allowed. To your positions!"
"Sweet," Nico whispered next to me. "What kind of magic items? Do I get one?"
I was about to break it to him that he didn't, when Thalia said, "Blue team! Follow me!"
They cheered and followed. I had to run to catch up, and tripped over somebody's shield, so I didn't look much like a co-captain. More like an idiot.
We set our flag at the top of Zeus's Fist. It's this cluster of boulders in the middle of the west woods that, if you look at it just the right way, looks like a huge fist sticking out of the ground. If you look at it from any other side, it looks like a pile of enormous deer droppings, but Chiron wouldn't let us call the place the Poop Pile, especially after it had been named for Zeus, who doesn't have much of a sense of humor.
Anyway, it was a good place to set the flag. The top boulder was twenty feet tall and really hard to climb, so the flag was clearly visible, like the rules said it had to be, and it didn't matter that the guards weren't allowed to stand within ten yards of it.
I set Nico on guard duty with Beckendorf and the Stoll brothers, figuring he'd be safely out of the way.
"We'll send out a decoy to the left," Thalia told the team. "Silena, you lead that."
"Take Laurel and Jason. They're good runners. Make a wide arc around the Hunters, attract as many as you can. I'll take the main raiding party around to the right and catch them by surprise."
Everybody nodded. It sounded good, and Thalia said it with such confidence you couldn't help but believe it would work.
Thalia looked at me. "Anything to add, Percy?"
"Um, yeah. Keep sharp on defense. We've got four guards, two scouts. That's not much for a big forest. I'll be roving. Yell if you need help."
"And don't leave your post!" Thalia said.
"Unless you see a golden opportunity," I added.
Thalia scowled. "Just don't leave your post."
"Percy!" She touched my arm and shocked me. I mean, everybody can give static shocks in the winter, but when Thalia does, it hurts. I guess it's because her dad is the god of lightning. She's been known to fry off people's eyebrows.
"Sorry," Thalia said, though she didn't sound particularly sorry. "Now, is everybody clear?"
Everybody nodded. We broke into our smaller groups. The horn sounded, and the game began.
Silena's group disappeared into the woods on the left. Thalia's group gave it a few seconds, then darted off toward the right.
I waited for something to happen. I climbed Zeus's Fist and had a good view over the forest. I remembered how the Hunters had stormed out of the woods when they fought the manticore, and I was prepared for something like that—one huge charge that could overwhelm us. But nothing happened.
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