Zoe raised an eyebrow. "I am a Hunter. I care what happens to the wild places of the world. Can the same be said for thee?"

"For you," Thalia corrected. "Not thee"

"But you use you for the beginning of a sentence."

"And for the end," Thalia said. "No thou. No thee. Just you"

Zoe threw up her hands in exasperation. "I hate this language. It changes too often!"

Grover sighed. He was still looking up at the stars like he was thinking about the light pollution problem. "If only Pan were here, he would set things right."

Zoe nodded sadly.

"Maybe it was the coffee," Grover said. "I was drinking coffee, and the wind came. Maybe if I drank more coffee…"

I was pretty sure coffee had nothing to do with what had happened in Cloudcroft, but I didn't have the heart to tell Grover. I thought about the rubber rat and the tiny birds that had suddenly come alive when the wind blew. "Grover, do you really think that was Pan? I mean, I know you want it to be."

"He sent us help," Grover insisted. "I don't know how or why. But it was his presence. After this quest is done, I'm going back to New Mexico and drinking a lot of coffee. It's the best lead we've gotten in two thousand years. I was so close."

I didn't answer. I didn't want to squash Grover's hopes.

"What I want to know," Thalia said, looking at Bianca, "is how you destroyed one of the zombies. There are a lot more out there somewhere. We need to figure out how to fight them."

Bianca shook her head. "I don't know. I just stabbed it and it went up in flames."

"Maybe there's something special about your knife," I said.

"It is the same as mine," Zoe said. "Celestial bronze, yes. But mine did not affect the warriors that way."

"Maybe you have to hit the skeleton in a certain spot," I said.

Bianca looked uncomfortable with everybody paying attention to her.

"Never mind," Zoe told her. "We will find the answer. In the meantime, we should plan our next move. When we get through this junkyard, we must continue west. If we can find a road, we can hitchhike to the nearest city. I think that would be Las Vegas."

I was about to protest that Grover and I had had bad experiences in that town, but Bianca beat us to it.

"No!" she said. "Not there!"

She looked really freaked out, like she'd just been dropped off the steep end of a roller coaster.

Zoe frowned. "Why?"

Bianca took a shaky breath. "I… I think we stayed there for a while. Nico and I. When we were traveling. And then, I can't remember…"

Suddenly I had a really bad thought. I remembered what

Bianca had told me about Nico and her staying in a hotel for a while. I met Graver's eyes, and I got the feeling he was thinking the same thing.

"Bianca," I said. "That hotel you stayed at. Was it possibly called the Lotus Hotel and Casino?"

Her eyes widened. "How could you know that?"

"Oh, great," I said.

"Wait," Thalia said. "What is the Lotus Casino?"

"A couple of years ago," I said, "Grover, Annabeth, and I got trapped there. It's designed so you never want to leave. We stayed for about an hour. When we came out, five days had passed. It makes time speed up."

"No," Bianca said. "No, that's not possible."

"You said somebody came and got you out," I remembered.

"Yes."

"What did he look like? What did he say?"

"I… I don't remember. Please, I really don't want to talk about this."

Zoe sat forward, her eyebrows knit with concern. "You said that Washington, D.C., had changed when you went back last summer. You didn't remember the subway being there."

"Yes, but—"

"Bianca," Zoe said, "can you tell me the name of the president of the United States right now?"

"Don't be silly," Bianca said. She told us the correct name of the president.

"And who was the president before that?" Zoe asked.

Bianca thought for a while. "Roosevelt."

Zoe swallowed. "Theodore or Franklin'?"

"Franklin," Bianca said. "F.D.R."

"Like FDR Drive?" I asked. Because seriously, that's about all I knew about F.D.R.

"Bianca," Zoe said. "F.D.R. was not the last president. That was about seventy years ago."

"That's impossible," Bianca said. "I… I'm not that old."

She stared at her hands as if to make sure they weren't wrinkled.

Thalia's eyes turned sad. I guess she knew what it was like to get pulled out of time for a while. "It's okay, Bianca, The important thing is you and Nico are safe. You made it out."

"But how?" I said. "We were only in there for an hour and we barely escaped. How could you have escaped after being there for so long?"

"I told you." Bianca looked about ready to cry. "A man came and said it was time to leave. And—"

"But who? Why did he do it?"

Before she could answer, we were hit with a blazing light from down the road. The headlights of a car appeared out of nowhere. I was half hoping it was Apollo, come to give us a ride again, but the engine was way too silent for the sun chariot, and besides, it was nighttime. We grabbed our sleeping bags and got out of the way as a deathly white limousine slid to a stop in front of us.

The back door of the limo opened right next to me. Before I could step away, the point of a sword touched my throat.

I heard the sound of Zoe and Bianca drawing their bows. As the owner of the sword got out of the car, I moved back very slowly. I had to, because he was pushing the point under my chin.

He smiled cruelly. "Not so fast now, are you, punk?"

He was a big man with a crew cut, a black leather biker's jacket, black jeans, a white muscle shirt, and combat boots. Wraparound shades hid his eyes, but I knew what was behind those glasses—hollow sockets filled with flames.

"Ares," I growled.

The war god glanced at my friends. "At ease, people."

He snapped his fingers, and their weapons fell to the ground.

"This is a friendly meeting." He dug the point of his blade a little farther under my chin. "Of course I'd like to take your head for a trophy, but someone wants to see you. And I never behead my enemies in front of a lady."

"What lady?" Thalia asked.

Ares looked over at her. "Well, well. I heard you were back."

He lowered his sword and pushed me away.

"Thalia, daughter of Zeus," Ares mused. "You're not hanging out with very good company."

"What's your business, Ares?" she said. "Who's in the car?"

Ares smiled, enjoying the attention. "Oh, I doubt she wants to meet the rest of you. Particularly not them." He jutted his chin toward Zoe and Bianca. "Why don't you all go get some tacos while you wait? Only take Percy a few minutes."

"We will not leave him alone with thee, Lord Ares," Zoe said.

"Besides," Grover managed, "the taco place is closed."

Ares snapped his fingers again. The lights inside the taqueria suddenly blazed to life. The boards flew off the door and the CLOSED sign flipped to OPEN. "You were saying, goat boy?"

"Go on," I told my friends. "I'll handle this."

I tried to sound more confident than I felt. I don't think Ares was fooled.

"You heard the boy," Ares said. "He's big and strong. He's got things under control."

My friends reluctantly headed over to the taco restaurant. Ares regarded me with loathing, then opened the limousine door like a chauffeur.

"Get inside, punk," he said. "And mind your manners. She's not as forgiving of rudeness as I am."

When I saw her, my jaw dropped.

I forgot my name. I forgot where I was. I forgot how to speak in complete sentences.

She was wearing a red satin dress and her hair was curled in a cascade of ringlets. Her face was the most beautiful I'd ever seen: perfect makeup, dazzling eyes, a smile that would've lit up the dark side of the moon.

Thinking back on it, I can't tell you who she looked like.

Or even what color her hair or her eyes were. Pick the most beautiful actress you can think of. The goddess was ten times more beautiful than that. Pick your favorite hair color, eye color, whatever. The goddess had that.

When she smiled at me, just for a moment she looked a little like Annabeth. Then like this television actress I used to have a crush on in fifth grade. Then… well, you get the idea.

"Ah, there you are, Percy," the goddess said. "I am Aphrodite."

I slipped into the seat across from her and said something like, "Um uh gah."

She smiled. "Aren't you sweet. Hold this, please."

She handed me a polished mirror the size of a dinner plate and had me hold it up for her. She leaned forward and dabbed at her lipstick, though I couldn't see anything wrong with it.

"Do you know why you're here?" she asked.

I wanted to respond. Why couldn't I form a complete sentence? She was only a lady. A seriously beautiful lady. With eyes like pools of spring water… Whoa.

I pinched my own arm, hard.

"I… I don't know," I managed.

"Oh, dear," Aphrodite said. "Still in denial?"

Outside the car, I could hear Ares chuckling. I had a feeling he could hear every word we said. The idea of him being out there made me angry, and that helped clear my mind.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.

"Well then, why are you on this quest?"

"Artemis has been captured!"

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Oh, Artemis. Please. Talk about a hopeless case. I mean, if they were going to kidnap a goddess, she should be breathtakingly beautiful, don't you think? I pity the poor dears who have to imprison Artemis. Bo-ring!"

"But she was chasing a monster," I protested. "A really, really bad monster. We have to find it!"

Aphrodite made me hold the mirror a little higher. She seemed to have found a microscopic problem at the corner of her eye and dabbed at her mascara. "Always some monster. But my dear Percy, that is why the others are on this quest. I'm more interested in you."

My heart pounded. I didn't want to answer, but her eyes drew an answer right out of my mouth. "Annabeth is in trouble."

Aphrodite beamed. "Exactly!"

"I have to help her," I said. "I've been having these dreams."

"Ah, you even dream about her! That's so cute!"

"No! I mean… that's not what I meant."

She made a tsk-tsk sound. "Percy, I'm on your side. I'm the reason you're here, after all."

I stared at her. "What?"

"The poisoned T-shirt the Stoll brothers gave Phoebe," she said. "Did you think that was an accident? Sending Blackjack to find you? Helping you sneak out of the camp?"

"You did that?"

"Of course! Because really, how boring these Hunters . are! A quest for some monster, blah blah blah. Saving Artemis. Let her stay lost, I say. But a quest for true love—"

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