I tried not to get too depressed about our chances. I didn't want to send Grover into a panic, but I knew we had another huge deadline looming, aside from saving Artemis in time for her council of the gods. The General had said Annabeth would only be kept alive until the winter solstice. That was Friday, only four days away. And he'd said something about a sacrifice. I didn't like the sound of that at all.
We stopped in the middle of town. You could pretty much see everything from there: a school, a bunch of tourist stores and cafes, some ski cabins, and a grocery store.
"Great," Thalia said, looking around. "No bus station. No taxis. No car rental. No way out."
"There's a coffee shop!" said Grover.
"Yes," Zoe said. "Coffee is good."
"And pastries," Grover said dreamily. "And wax paper."
Thalia sighed. "Fine. How about you two go get us some food. Percy, Bianca, and I will check in the grocery store. Maybe they can give us directions."
We agreed to meet back in front of the grocery store in fifteen minutes. Bianca looked a little uncomfortable coming with us, but she did.
Inside the store, we found out a few valuable things about Cloudcroft: there wasn't enough snow for skiing, the grocery store sold rubber rats for a dollar each, and there was no easy way in or out of town unless you had your own car.
"You could call for a taxi from Alamogordo," the clerk said doubtfully. "That's down at the bottom of the mountains, but it would take at least an hour to get here. Cost several hundred dollars."
The clerk looked so lonely, I bought a rubber rat. Then we headed back outside and stood on the porch.
"Wonderful," Thalia grumped. "I'm going to walk down the street, see if anybody in the other shops has a suggestion."
"But the clerk said—"
"I know," she told me. "I'm checking anyway."
I let her go. I knew how it felt to be restless. All half-bloods had attention deficit problems because of our inborn battlefield reflexes. We couldn't stand just waiting around. Also, I had a feeling Thalia was still upset over our conversation last night about Luke.
Bianca and I stood together awkwardly. I mean… I was never very comfortable talking one-on-one with girls anyway, and I'd never been alone with Bianca before. I wasn't sure what to say, especially now that she was a Hunter and everything.
"Nice rat," she said at last.
I set it on the porch railing. Maybe it would attract more business for the store.
"So… how do you like being a Hunter so far?" I asked.
She pursed her lips. "You're not still mad at me for joining, are you?"
"Nah. Long as, you know… you're happy."
"I'm not sure 'happy' is the right word, with Lady Artemis gone. But being a Hunter is definitely cool. I feel calmer somehow. Everything seems to have slowed down around me. I guess that's the immortality."
I stared at her, trying to see the difference. She did seem more confident than before, more at peace. She didn't hide her face under a green cap anymore. She kept her hair tied back, and she looked me right in the eyes when she spoke. With a shiver, I realized that five hundred or a thousand years from now, Bianca di Angelo would look exactly the same as she did today. She might be having a conversation like this with some other half-blood long after I was dead, but Bianca would still look twelve years old.
"Nico didn't understand my decision," Bianca murmured. She looked at me like she wanted assurance it was okay.
"He'll be all right," I said. "Camp Half-Blood takes in a lot of young kids. They did that for Annabeth."
Bianca nodded. "I hope we find her. Annabeth, I mean. She's lucky to have a friend like you."
"Lot of good it did her."
"Don't blame yourself Percy. You risked your life to save my brother and me. I mean, that was seriously brave. If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't have felt okay about leaving Nico at the camp. I figured if there were people like you there, Nico would be fine. You're a good guy."
The compliment took me by surprise. "Even though I knocked you down in capture the flag?"
She laughed. "Okay. Except for that, you're a good guy."
A couple hundred yards away, Grover and Zoe came out of the coffee shop loaded down with pastry bags and drinks. I kind of didn't want them to come back yet. It was weird, but I realized I liked talking to Bianca. She wasn't so bad. A lot easier to hang out with than Zoe Nightshade, anyway.
"So what's the story with you and Nico?" I asked her. "Where did you go to school before Westover?"
She frowned. "I think it was a boarding school in D.C. It seems like so long ago."
"You never lived with your parents? I mean, your mortal parent?"
"We were told our parents were dead. There was a bank trust for us. A lot of money, I think. A lawyer would come by once in a while to check on us. Then Nico and I had to leave that school."
She knit her eyebrows. "We had to go somewhere. I remember it was important. We traveled a long way. And we stayed in this hotel for a few weeks. And then… I don't know. One day a different lawyer came to get us out. He said it was time for us to leave. He drove us back east, through D.C. Then up into Maine. And we started going to Westover."
It was a strange story. Then again, Bianca and Nico were half-bloods. Nothing would be normal for them.
"So you've been raising Nico pretty much all your life?" I asked. "Just the two of you?"
She nodded. "That's why I wanted to join the Hunters so bad. I mean, I know it's selfish, but I wanted my own life and friends. I love Nico—don't get me wrong—I just needed to find out what it would be like not to be a big sister twenty-four hours a day."
I thought about last summer, the way I'd felt when I found out I had a Cyclops for a baby brother. I could relate to what Bianca was saying.
"Zoe seems to trust you,"I said."What were you guys talking about, anyway—something dangerous about the quest?"
Yesterday morning on the pavilion," I said, before I could stop myself. "Something about the General."
Her face darkened. "How did you… The invisibility hat. Were you eavesdropping?"
"No! I mean, not really. I just—"
I was saved from trying to explain when Zoe and Grover arrived with the drinks and pastries. Hot chocolate for Bianca and me. Coffee for them. I got a blueberry muffin, and it was so good I could almost ignore the outraged look Bianca was giving me.
"We should do the tracking spell," Zoe said. "Grover, do you have any acorns left?"
"Umm," Grover mumbled. He was chewing on a bran muffin, wrapper and all. "I think so. I just need to—"
I was about to ask what was wrong, when a warm breeze rustled past, like a gust of springtime had gotten lost in the middle of winter. Fresh air seasoned with wildflowers and sunshine. And something else—almost like a voice, trying to say something. A warning.
Zoe gasped. "Grover, thy cup."
Grover dropped his coffee cup, which was decorated with pictures of birds. Suddenly the birds peeled off the cup and flew away—a flock of tiny doves. My rubber rat squeaked. It scampered off the railing and into the trees—real fur, real whiskers.
Grover collapsed next to his coffee, which steamed against the snow. We gathered around him and tried to wake him up. He groaned, his eyes fluttering.
"Hey!" Thalia said, running up from the street. "I just… What's wrong with Grover?"
"I don't know," I said. "He collapsed."
"Uuuuuhhhh," Grover groaned.
"Well, get him up!" Thalia said. She had her spear in her hand. She looked behind her as if she were being followed. "We have to get out of here."
We made it to the edge of the town before the first two skeleton warriors appeared. They stepped from the trees on either side of the road. Instead of gray camouflage, they were now wearing blue New Mexico State Police uniforms, but they had the same transparent gray skin and yellow eyes.
They drew their handguns. I'll admit I used to think it would be kind of cool to learn how to shoot a gun, but I changed my mind as soon as the skeleton warriors pointed theirs at me.
Thalia tapped her bracelet. Aegis spiraled to life on her arm, but the warriors didn't flinch. Their glowing yellow eyes bored right into me.
I drew Riptide, though I wasn't sure what good it would do against guns.
Zoe and Bianca drew their bows, but Bianca was having trouble because Grover kept swooning and leaning against her.
"Back up," Thalia said.
We started to—but then I heard a rustling of branches. Two more skeletons appeared on the road behind us. We were surrounded.
I wondered where the other skeletons were. I'd seen a dozen at the Smithsonian. Then one of the warriors raised a cell phone to his mouth and spoke into it.
Except he wasn't speaking. He made a clattering, clicking sound, like dry teeth on bone. Suddenly I understood what was going on. The skeletons had split up to look for us. These skeletons were now calling their brethren. Soon we'd have a full party on our hands.
"It's near," Grover moaned.
"It's here," I said.
"No," he insisted. "The gift. The gift from the Wild."
I didn't know what he was talking about, but I was worried about his condition. He was in no shape to walk, much less fight.
"We'll have to go one-on-one," Thalia said. "Four of them. Four of us. Maybe they'll ignore Grover that way."
"Agreed," said Zoe.
"The Wild!" Grover moaned.
A warm wind blew through the canyon, rustling the trees, but I kept my eyes on the skeletons. I remembered the General gloating over Annabeth's fate. I remembered the way Luke had betrayed her.
And I charged.
The first skeleton fired. Time slowed down. I won't say I could see the bullet, but I could feel its path, the same way I felt water currents in the ocean. I deflected it off the edge of my blade and kept charging.
The skeleton drew a baton and I sliced off his arms at the elbows. Then I swung Riptide through his waist and cut him in half.
His bones unknit and clattered to the asphalt in a heap. Almost immediately, they began to move, reassembling themselves. The second skeleton clattered his teeth at me and tried to fire, but I knocked his gun into the snow.
I thought I was doing pretty well, until the other two skeletons shot me in the back.
"Percy!" Thalia screamed.
I landed facedown in the street. Then I realized something… I wasn't dead. The impact of the bullets had been dull, like a push from behind, but they hadn't hurt me.
The Nemean Lion's fur! My coat was bulletproof.
Thalia charged the second skeleton. Zoe and Bianca started firing arrows at the third and fourth. Grover stood there and held his hands out to the trees, looking like he wanted to hug them.
There was a crashing sound in the forest to our left, like a bulldozer. Maybe the skeletons' reinforcements were arriving. I got to my feet and ducked a police baton. The skeleton I'd cut in half was already fully re-formed, coming after me.
There was no way to stop them. Zoe and Bianca fired at their heads point-blank, but the arrows just whistled straight through their empty skulls. One lunged at Bianca, and I thought she was a goner, but she whipped out her hunting knife and stabbed the warrior in the chest. The whole skeleton erupted into flames, leaving a little pile of ashes and a police badge.
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