"Yes," Zoe agreed. "Artemis is being held hostage! We must find her and free her."

"You're missing something, as usual," Thalia said. "Campers and Hunters combined prevail. We're supposed to do this together."

"No!" Zoe said. "The Hunters do not need thy help."

"Your" Thalia grumbled. "Nobody has said thy in, like, three hundred years, Zoe. Get with the times."

Zoe hesitated, like she was trying to form the word correctly. " Yerrr. We do not need yerrr help."

Thalia rolled her eyes. "Forget it."

"I fear the prophecy says you do need our help," Chiron said. "Campers and Hunters must cooperate."

"Or do they?" Mr. D mused, swirling his Diet Coke under his nose like it had a fine bouquet. "One shall be lost. One shall perish. That sounds rather nasty, doesn't it? What if you fail because you try to cooperate?"

"Mr. D," Chiron sighed, "with all due respect, whose side are you on?"

Dionysus raised his eyebrows. "Sorry, my dear centaur. Just trying to be helpful."

"We're supposed to work together," Thalia said stubbornly. "I don't like it either, Zoe, but you know prophecies. You want to fight against one?"

Zoe grimaced, but I could tell Thalia had scored a point.

"We must not delay," Chiron warned. "Today is Sunday. This very Friday, December twenty-first, is the winter solstice."

"Oh, joy," Dionysus muttered. "Another dull annual meeting."

"Artemis must be present at the solstice," Zoe said. "She has been one of the most vocal on the council arguing for action against Kronos's minions. If she is absent, the gods will decide nothing. We will lose another year of war preparations."

"Are you suggesting that the gods have trouble acting together, young lady?" Dionysus asked.

"Yes, Lord Dionysus."

Mr. D nodded. "Just checking. You're right, of course. Carry on."

"I must agree with Zoe," said Chiron. "Artemis's presence at the winter council is critical. We have only a week to find her. And possibly even more important: to locate the monster she was hunting. Now, we must decide who goes on this quest."

"Three and two," I said.

Everybody looked at me. Thalia even forgot to ignore me.

"We're supposed to have five," I said, feeling self-conscious. "Three Hunters, two from Camp Half-Blood. That's more than fair."

Thalia and Zoe exchanged looks.

"Well," Thalia said. "It does make sense."

Zoe grunted. "I would prefer to take all the Hunters. We will need strength of numbers."

"You'll be retracing the goddess's path," Chiron reminded her. "Moving quickly. No doubt Artemis tracked the scent of this rare monster, whatever it is, as she moved west. You will have to do the same. The prophecy was clear: The bane of Olympus shows the trail. What would your mistress say? 'Too many Hunters spoil the scent.' A small group is best."

Zoe picked up a Ping-Pong paddle and studied it like she was deciding who she wanted to whack first. "This monster—the bane of Olympus. I have hunted at Lady Artemis's side for many years, yet I have no idea what this beast might be."

Everybody looked at Dionysus, I guess because he was the only god present and gods are supposed to know things. He was flipping through a wine magazine, but when everyone got silent he glanced up, "Well, don't look at me. I'm a young god, remember? I don't keep track of all those ancient monsters and dusty titans. They make for terrible party conversation."

"Chiron," I said, "you don't have any ideas about the monster?"

Chiron pursed his lips. "I have several ideas, none of them good. And none of them quite make sense. Typhon, for instance, could fit this description. He was truly a bane of Olympus. Or the sea monster Keto. But if either of these were stirring, we would know it. They are ocean monsters the size of skyscrapers. Your father, Poseidon, would already have sounded the alarm. I fear this monster may be more elusive. Perhaps even more powerful."

"That's some serious danger you're facing," Connor Stoll said. (I liked how he said you and not we.) "It sounds like at least two of the five are going to die."

"One shall be lost in the land without rain" Beckendorf said. "If I were you, I'd stay out of the desert."

There was a muttering of agreement.

"And the Titan's curse must one withstand," Silena said. "What could that mean?"

I saw Chiron and Zoe exchange a nervous look, but whatever they were thinking, they didn't share it.

"One shall perish by a parent's hand," Grover said in between bites of Cheez Whiz and Ping-Pong balls. "How is that possible? Whose parent would kill them?"

There was heavy silence around the table.

I glanced at Thalia and wondered if she was thinking the same thing I was. Years ago, Chiron had had a prophecy about the next child of the Big Three—Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades—who turned sixteen. Supposedly, that kid would make a decision that would save or destroy the gods forever. Because of that, the Big Three had taken an oath after World War II not to have any more kids. But Thalia and I had been born anyway, and now we were both getting close to sixteen.

I remembered a conversation I'd had last year with Annabeth. I'd asked her, if I was so potentially dangerous, why the gods didn't just kill me.

Some of the gods would like to kill you, she'd said. But they're afraid of offending Poseidon.

Could an Olympian parent turn against his half-blood child? Would it sometimes be easier just to let them die? If there were ever any half-bloods who needed to worry about that, it was Thalia and me. I wondered if maybe I should've sent Poseidon that seashell pattern tie for Father's Day after all.

"There will be deaths," Chiron decided. "That much we know."

"Oh, goody!" Dionysus said.

Everyone looked at him. He glanced up innocently from the pages of Wine Connoisseur magazine. "Ah, pinot noir is making a comeback. Don't mind me."

"Percy is right," Silena Beauregard said. "Two campers should go."

"Oh, I see," Zoe said sarcastically. "And I suppose you wish to volunteer?"

Silena blushed. "I'm not going anywhere with the Hunters. Don't look at me!"

"A daughter of Aphrodite does not wish to be looked at," Zoe scoffed. "What would thy mother say?"

Silena started to get out of her chair, but the Stoll brothers pulled her back.

"Stop it," Beckendorf said. He was a big guy with a bigger voice. He didn't talk much, but when he did, people tended to listen. "Let's start with the Hunters. Which three of you will go?"

Zoe stood. "I shall go, of course, and I will take Phoebe. She is our best tracker."

"The big girl who likes to hit people on the head?" Travis Stoll asked cautiously.

Zoe nodded.

"The one who put the arrows in my helmet?" Connor added..

"Yes," Zoe snapped. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing," Travis said. "Just that we have a T-shirt for her from the camp store." He held up a big silver T-shirt that said ARTEMIS THE MOON GODDESS, FALL HUNTING TOUR 2002, with a huge list of national parks and stuff underneath. "It's a collector's item. She was admiring it. You want to give it to her?"

I knew the Stolls were up to something. They always were. But I guess Zoe didn't know them as well as I did. She just sighed and took the T-shirt. "As I was saying, I will take Phoebe. And I wish Bianca to go."

Bianca looked stunned. "Me? But… I'm so new. I wouldn't be any good."

"You will do fine," Zoe insisted. "There is no better way to prove thyself."

Bianca closed her mouth. I felt kind of sorry for her. I remembered my first quest when I was twelve. I had felt totally unprepared. A little honored, maybe, but a lot resentful and plenty scared. I figured the same things were running around in Bianca's head right now.

"And for campers?" Chiron asked. His eyes met mine, but I couldn't tell what he was thinking.

"Me!" Grover stood up so fast he bumped the Ping-Pong table. He brushed cracker crumbs and Ping-Pong ball scraps off his lap. "Anything to help Artemis!"

Zoe wrinkled her nose. "I think not, satyr. You are not even a half-blood."

"But he is a camper," Thalia said. "And he's got a satyr's senses and woodland magic. Can you play a tracker's song yet, Grover?"

"Absolutely!"

Zoe wavered. I didn't know what a tracker's song was, but apparently Zoe thought it was a good thing.

"Very well," Zoe said. "And the second camper?"

"I'll go." Thalia stood and looked around, daring anyone to question her.

Now, okay, maybe my math skills weren't the best, but it suddenly occurred to me that we'd reached the number five, and I wasn't in the group. "Whoa, wait a sec," I said. "I want to go too."

Thalia said nothing. Chiron was still studying me, his eyes sad.

"Oh," Grover said, suddenly aware of the problem. "Whoa, yeah, I forgot! Percy has to go. I didn't mean… I'll stay. Percy should go in my place."

"He cannot," Zoe said. "He is a boy. I won't have Hunters traveling with a boy."

"You traveled here with me," I reminded her.

"That was a short-term emergency, and it was ordered by the goddess. I will not go across country and fight many dangers in the company of a boy."

"What about Grover?" I demanded.

Zoe shook her head. "He does not count. He's a satyr. He is not technically a boy."

"Hey!" Grover protested.

"I have to go," I said. "I need to be on this quest."

"Why?" Zoe asked. "Because of thy friend Annabeth?"

I felt myself blushing. I hated that everyone was looking at me."No! I mean, partly.I just feel like I'm supposed to go!"

Nobody rose to my defense. Mr. D looked bored, still reading his magazine. Silena, the Stoll brothers, and Beckendorf were staring at the table. Bianca gave me a look of pity.

"No," Zoe said flatly. "I insist upon this. I will take a satyr if I must, but not a male hero."

Chiron sighed. "The quest is for Artemis. The Hunters should be allowed to approve their companions."

My ears were ringing as I sat down. I knew Grover and some of the others were looking at me sympathetically, but

I couldn't meet their eyes. I just sat there as Chiron concluded the council.

"So be it," he said. "Thalia and Grover will accompany Zoe, Bianca, and Phoebe. You shall leave at first light. And may the gods"—he glanced at Dionysus—"present company included, we hope—be with you."

I didn't show up for dinner that night, which was a mistake, because Chiron and Grover came looking for me.

"Percy, I'm so sorry!" Grover said, sitting next to me on the bunk. "I didn't know they'd—that you'd—Honest!"

He started to sniffle, and I figured if I didn't cheer him up he'd either start bawling or chewing up my mattress. He tends to eat household objects whenever he gets upset.

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