"How did you do that?" Zoe asked.
"I don't know," Bianca said nervously. "Lucky stab?"
"Well, do it again!"
Bianca tried, but the remaining three skeletons were wary of her now. They pressed us back, keeping us at baton's length.
"Plan?" I said as we retreated.
Nobody answered. The trees behind the skeletons were shivering. Branches were cracking.
"A gift," Grover muttered.
And then, with a mighty roar, the largest pig I'd ever seen came crashing into the road. It was a wild boar, thirty feet high, with a snotty pink snout and tusks the size of canoes. Its back bristled with brown hair, and its eyes were wild and angry.
"REEEEEEEEET!" it squealed, and raked the three skeletons aside with its tusks. The force was so great, they went flying over the trees and into the side of the mountain, where they smashed to pieces, thigh bones and arm bones twirling everywhere.
Then the pig turned on us.
Thalia raised her spear, but Grover yelled, "Don't kill it.'"
The boar grunted and pawed the ground, ready to charge.
"That's the Erymanthian Boar," Zoe said, trying to stay calm. "I don't think we can kill it."
"It's a gift," Grover said. "A blessing from the Wild!"
The boar said "REEEEEEET!" and swung its tusk. Zoe and Bianca dived out of the way. I had to push Grover so he wouldn't get launched into the mountain on the Boar Tusk Express.
"Yeah, I feel blessed!" I said. "Scatter!"
We ran in different directions, and for a moment the boar was confused.
"It wants to kill us!" Thalia said.
"Of course," Grover said. "It's wild!"
"So how is that a blessing?" Bianca asked.
It seemed a fair question to me, but the pig was offended and charged her. She was faster than I'd realized. She rolled out of the way of its hooves and came up behind the beast. It lashed out with its tusks and pulverized the WELCOME TO CLOUDCROFT sign.
I racked my brain, trying to remember the myth of the boar. I was pretty sure Hercules had fought this thing once, but I couldn't remember how he'd beaten it. I had a vague memory of the boar plowing down several Greek cities before Hercules managed to subdue it. I hoped Cloudcroft was insured against giant wild boar attacks.
"Keep moving!" Zoe yelled. She and Bianca ran in opposite directions. Grover danced around the boar, playing his pipes while the boar snorted and tried to gouge him. But Thalia and I won the prize for bad luck. When the boar turned on us, Thalia made the mistake of raising Aegis in defense. The sight of the Medusa head made the boar squeal in outrage. Maybe it looked too much like one of his relatives. The boar charged us.
We only managed to keep ahead of it because we ran uphill, and we could dodge in and out of trees while the boar had to plow through them.
On the other side of the hill, I found an old stretch of train tracks, half buried in the snow.
"This way.'" I grabbed Thalia's arm and we ran along the rails while the boar roared behind us, slipping and sliding as it tried to navigate the steep hillside. Its hooves just were not made for this, thank the gods.
Ahead of us, I saw a covered tunnel. Past that, an old trestle bridge spanning a gorge. I had a crazy idea.
Thalia slowed down—I didn't have time to ask why—but I pulled her along and she reluctantly followed. Behind us, a ten-ton pig tank was knocking down pine trees and crushing boulders under its hooves as it chased us.
Thalia and I ran into the tunnel and came out on the other side.
"No!" Thalia screamed.
She'd turned as white as ice. We were at the edge of the bridge. Below, the mountain dropped away into a snow-filled gorge about seventy feet below.
The boar was right behind us.
"Come on!" I said. "It'll hold our weight, probably."
"I can't!" Thalia yelled. Her eyes were wild with fear.
The boar smashed into the covered tunnel, tearing through at full speed.
"Now!" I yelled at Thalia.
She looked down and swallowed. I swear she was turning green.
I didn't have time to process why. The boar was charging through the tunnel, straight toward us. Plan B. I tackled Thalia and sent us both sideways off the edge of the bridge, into the side of the mountain. We slid on Aegis like a snow-board, over rocks and mud and snow, racing downhill. The boar was less fortunate; it couldn't turn that fast, so all ten tons of the monster charged out onto the tiny trestle, which buckled under its weight. The boar free-fell into the gorge with a mighty squeal and landed in a snowdrift with a huge POOOOOF!
Thalia and I skidded to a stop. We were both breathing hard. I was cut up and bleeding. Thalia had pine needles in her hair. Next to us, the wild boar was squealing and struggling. All I could see was the bristly tip of its back. It was wedged completely in the snow like Styrofoam packing. It didn't seem to be hurt, but it wasn't going anywhere, either.
I looked at Thalia. "You're afraid of heights."
Now that we were safely down the mountain, her eyes had their usual angry look. "Don't be stupid."
"That explains why you freaked out on Apollo's bus. Why you didn't want to talk about it."
She took a deep breath. Then she brushed the pine needles out of her hair. "If you tell anyone, I swear—"
"No, no," I said. "That's cool. It's just… the daughter of Zeus, the Lord of the Sky, afraid of heights?"
She was about to knock me into the snow when, above us, Grover's voice called, "Helloooooo?"
"Down here!" I shouted.
A few minutes later, Zoe, Bianca, and Grover joined us. We stood watching the wild boar struggle in the snow.
"A blessing of the Wild," Grover said, though he now looked agitated.
"I agree," Zoe said. "We must use it."
"Hold up," Thalia said irritably. She still looked like 1 she'd just lost a fight with a Christmas tree. "Explain to me why you're so sure this pig is a blessing."
Grover looked over, distracted. "It's our ride west. Do you have any idea how fast this boar can travel?"
"Fun," I said. "Like… pig cowboys."
Grover nodded. "We need to get aboard. I wish… I wish I had more time to look around. But it's gone now."
Grover didn't seem to hear me. He walked over to the boar and jumped onto its back. Already the boar was starting to make some headway through the drift. Once it broke free, there'd be no stopping it. Grover took out his pipes. He started playing a snappy tune and tossed an apple in front of the boar. The apple floated and spun right above the boar's nose, and the boar went nuts, straining to get it.
"Automatic steering," Thalia murmured. "Great."
She trudged over and jumped on behind Grover, which still left plenty of room for the rest of us.
Zoe and Bianca walked toward the boar.
"Wait a second," I said. "Do you two know what Grover is talking about—this wild blessing?"
"Of course," Zoe said. "Did you not feel it in the wind? It was so strong… I never thought I would sense that presence again."
She stared at me like I was an idiot. "The Lord of the Wild, of course. Just for a moment, in the arrival of the boar, I felt the presence of Pan."
WE VISIT THE JUNKYARD OF THE GODS
We rode the boar until sunset, which was about as much as my back end could take. Imagine riding a giant steel brush over a bed of gravel all day. That's about how comfortable boar-riding was.
I have no idea how many miles we covered, but the mountains faded into the distance and were replaced by miles of flat, dry land. The grass and scrub brush got sparser until we were galloping (do boars gallop?) across the desert.
As night fell, the boar came to a stop at a creek bed and snorted. He started drinking the muddy water, then ripped a saguaro cactus out of the ground and chewed it, needles and all.
"This is as far as he'll go," Grover said. "We need to get off while he's eating."
Nobody needed convincing. We slipped off the boar's back while he was busy ripping up cacti. Then we waddled away as best we could with our saddle sores.
After its third saguaro and another drink of muddy water, the boar squealed and belched, then whirled around and galloped back toward the east.
"It likes the mountains better," I guessed.
"I can't blame it," Thalia said. "Look."
Ahead of us was a two-lane road half covered with sand. On the other side of the road was a cluster of buildings too small to be a town: a boarded-up house, a taco shop that looked like it hadn't been open since before Zoe Nightshade was born, and a white stucco post office with a sign that said GILA CLAW, ARIZONA hanging crooked above the door. Beyond that was a range of hills… but then I noticed they weren't regular hills. The countryside was way too flat for that. The hills were enormous mounds of old cars, appliances, and other scrap metal. It was a junkyard that seemed to go on forever.
"Whoa," I said.
"Something tells me we're not going to find a car rental here," Thalia said. She looked at Graver. "I don't suppose you got another wild boar up your sleeve?"
Grover was sniffing the wind, looking nervous. He fished out his acorns and threw them into the sand, then played his pipes. They rearranged themselves in a pattern that made no sense to me, but Grover looked concerned.
"That's us," he said. "Those five nuts right there."
"Which one is me?" I asked.
"The little deformed one," Zoe suggested.
"Oh, shut up."
"That cluster right there," Grover said, pointing to the left, "that's trouble."
"A monster?" Thalia asked.
Grover looked uneasy. "I don't smell anything, which doesn't make sense. But the acorns don't lie. Our next challenge…"
He pointed straight toward the junkyard. With the sunlight almost gone now, the hills of metal looked like something on an alien planet.
We decided to camp for the night and try the junkyard in the morning. None of us wanted to go Dumpster-diving in the dark.
Zoe and Bianca produced five sleeping bags and foam mattresses out of their backpacks. I don't know how they did it, because the packs were tiny, but must've been enchanted to hold so much stuff. I'd noticed their bows and quivers were also magic. I never really thought about it, but when the Hunters needed them, they just appeared slung over their backs. And when they didn't, they were gone.
The night got chilly fast, so Grover and I collected old boards from the ruined house, and Thalia zapped them with an electric shock to start a campfire. Pretty soon we were about as comfy as you can get in a rundown ghost town in the middle of nowhere.
"The stars are out," Zoe said.
She was right. There were millions of them, with no city lights to turn the sky orange.
"Amazing," Bianca said. "I've never actually seen the Milky Way."
"This is nothing," Zoe said. "In the old days, there were more. Whole constellations have disappeared because of human light pollution."
"You talk like you're not human," I said.