Bianca and I ended up next to each other, hiding behind a broken chariot.
"You took something," I said. "That bow."
"No!" she said, but her voice was quivering.
"Give it back!" I said. "Throw it down!"
"I… I didn't take the bow! Besides, it's too late."
"What did. you take?"
Before she could answer, I heard a massive creaking noise, and a shadow blotted out the sky.
"Move!" I tore down the hill, Bianca right behind me, as the giant's foot smashed a crater in the ground where we'd been hiding.
"Hey, Talos!" Grover yelled, but the monster raised his sword, looking down at Bianca and me.
Grover played a quick melody on his pipes. Over at the highway, the downed power lines began to dance. I understood what Grover was going to do a split second before it happened. One of the poles with power lines still attached flew toward Talos's back leg and wrapped around his calf The lines sparked and sent a jolt of electricity up the giant's backside.
Talos whirled around, creaking and sparking. Grover had bought us a few seconds.
"Come on!" I told Bianca. But she stayed frozen. From her pocket, she brought out a small metal figurine, a statue of a god. "It… it was for Nico. It was the only statue he didn't have."
"How can you think of Mythomagic at a time like this?" I said.
There were tears in her eyes.
"Throw it down," I said. "Maybe the giant will leave us alone."
She dropped it reluctantly, but nothing happened.
The giant kept coming after Grover. It stabbed its sword into a junk hill, missing Grover by a few feet, but scrap metal made an avalanche over him, and then I couldn't see him anymore.
"No!" Thalia yelled. She pointed her spear, and a blue arc of lightning shot out, hitting the monster in his rusty knee, which buckled. The giant collapsed, but immediately started to rise again. It was hard to tell if it could feel anything. There weren't any emotions in its half-melted face, but I got the sense that it was about as ticked off as a twenty-story-tall metal warrior could be.
He raised his foot to stomp and I saw that his sole was treaded like the bottom of a sneaker. There was a hole in his heel, like a large manhole, and there were red words painted around it, which I deciphered only after the foot came down: FOR MAINTENANCE ONLY.
"Crazy-idea time," I said.
Bianca looked at me nervously. "Anything."
I told her about the maintenance hatch. "There may be a way to control the thing. Switches or something. I'm going to get inside."
"How? You'll have to stand under its foot! You'll be crushed"
"Distract it," I said. "I'll just have to time it right."
Bianca's jaw tightened. "No. I'll go."
"You can't. You're new at this! You'll die."
"It's my fault the monster came after us," she said. "It's my responsibility. Here." She picked up the little god statue and pressed it into my hand. "If anything happens, give that to Nico. Tell him… tell him I'm sorry."
But she wasn't waiting for me. She charged at the monster's left foot.
Thalia had its attention for the moment. She'd learned that the giant was big but slow. If you could stay close to it and not get smashed, you could run around it and stay alive. At least, it was working so far.
Bianca got right next to the giant's foot, trying to balance herself on the metal scraps that swayed and shifted with his weight.
Zoe yelled, "What are you doing?"
"Get it to raise its foot!" she said.
Zoe shot an arrow toward the monster's face and it flew straight into one nostril. The giant straightened and shook its head.
"Hey, Junk Boy!" I yelled. "Down here."
I ran up to its big toe and stabbed it with Riptide. The magic blade cut a gash in the bronze.
Unfortunately, my plan worked. Talos looked down at me and raised his foot to squash me like a bug. I didn't see what Bianca was doing. I had to turn and run. The foot came down about two inches behind me and I was knocked into the air. I hit something hard and sat up, dazed. I'd been thrown into an Olympus-Air refrigerator.
The monster was about to finish me off, but Grover somehow dug himself out of the junk pile. He played his pipes frantically, and his music sent another power line pole whacking against Talos's thigh. The monster turned. Grover should've run, but he must've been too exhausted from the effort of so much magic. He took two steps, fell, and didn't get back up.
"Grover!" Thalia and I both ran toward him, but I knew we'd be too late.
The monster raised his sword to smash Grover. Then he froze.
Talos cocked his head to one side, like he was hearing strange new music. He started moving his arms and legs in weird ways, doing the Funky Chicken. Then he made a fist and punched himself in the face.
"Go, Bianca!" I yelled.
Zoe looked horrified. "She is inside?"
The monster staggered around, and I realized we were still in danger. Thalia and I grabbed Grover and ran with him toward the highway. Zoe was already ahead of us. She yelled, "How will Bianca get out?"
The giant hit itself in the head again and dropped his sword. A shudder ran through his whole body and he staggered toward the power lines.
"Look out!" I yelled, but it was too late.
The giant's ankle snared the lines, and blue flickers of electricity shot up his body. I hoped the inside was insulated. I had no idea what was going on in there. The giant careened back into the junkyard, and his right hand fell off, landing in the scrap metal with a horrible CLANG!
His left arm came loose, too. He was falling apart at the joints.
Talos began to run.
"Wait!" Zoe yelled. We ran after him, but there was no way we could keep up. Pieces of the robot kept falling off, getting in our way.
The giant crumbled from the top down: his head, his chest, and finally, his legs collapsed. When we reached the wreckage we searched frantically, yelling Bianca's name. We crawled around in the vast hollow pieces and the legs and the head. We searched until the sun started to rise, but no luck.
Zoe sat down and wept. I was stunned to see her cry.
Thalia yelled in rage and impaled her sword in the giant's smashed face.
"We can keep searching," I said. "It's light now. We'll find her."
"No we won't," Grover said miserably. "It happened just as it was supposed to."
"What are you talking about?" I demanded.
He looked up at me with big watery eyes. "The prophecy. One shall he lost in the land without rain."
Why hadn't I seen it? Why had I let her go instead of me?
Here we were in the desert. And Bianca di Angelo was gone.
I HAVE A DAM PROBLEM
At the edge of the dump, we found a tow truck so old it might've been thrown away itself. But the engine started, and it had a full tank of gas, so we decided to borrow it.
Thalia drove. She didn't seem as stunned as Zoe or Grover or me.
"The skeletons are still out there," she reminded us. "We need to keep moving."
She navigated us through the desert, under clear blue skies, the sand so bright it hurt to look at. Zoe sat up front with Thalia. Grover and I sat in the pickup bed, leaning against the tow wench. The air was cool and dry, but the nice weather just seemed like an insult after losing Bianca.
My hand closed around the little figurine that had cost her life. I still couldn't even tell what god it was supposed to be. Nico would know.
Oh, gods… what was I going to tell Nico?
I wanted to believe that Bianca was still alive somewhere. But I had a bad feeling that she was gone for good.
"It should've been me," I said. "I should've gone into the giant."
"Don't say that!" Grover panicked. "It's bad enough
Annabeth is gone, and now Bianca. Do you think I could stand it if…" He sniffled. "Do you think anybody else would be my best friend?"
He wiped under his eyes with an oily cloth that left his face grimy, like he had on war paint. "I'm… I'm okay."
But he wasn't okay. Ever since the encounter in New Mexico—whatever had happened when that wild wind blew through—he seemed really fragile, even more emotional than usual. I was afraid to talk to him about it, because he might start bawling.
At least there's one good thing about having a friend who gets freaked out more than you do. I realized I couldn't stay depressed. I had to set aside thinking about Bianca and keep us going forward, the way Thalia was doing. I wondered what she and Zoe were talking about in the front of the truck.
The tow truck ran out of gas at the edge of a river canyon. That was just as well, because the road dead-ended.
Thalia got out and slammed the door. Immediately, one of the tires blew. "Great. What now?"
I scanned the horizon. There wasn't much to see. Desert in all directions, occasional clumps of barren mountains plopped here and there. The canyon was the only thing interesting. The river itself wasn't very big, maybe fifty yards across, green water with a few rapids, but it carved a huge scar out of the desert. The rock cliffs dropped away below us.
"There's a path," Grover said. "We could get to the river."
I tried to see what he was talking about, and finally noticed a tiny ledge winding down the cliff face. "That's a goat path," I said.
"So?" he asked.
"The rest of us aren't goats."
"We can make it," Grover said. "I think."
I thought about that. I'd done cliffs before, but I didn't like them. Then I looked over at Thalia and saw how pale she'd gotten. Her problem with heights… she'd never be able to do it.
"No," I said. "I, uh, think we should go farther upstream."
Grover said, "But—"
"Come on," I said. "A walk won't hurt us."
I glanced at Thalia. Her eyes said a quick Thank you.
We followed the river about half a mile before coming to an easier slope that led down to the water. On the shore was a canoe rental operation that was closed for the season, but I left a stack of golden drachmas on the counter and a note saying IOU two canoes.
"We need to go upstream," Zoe said. It was the first time I'd heard her speak since the junkyard, and I was worried about how bad she sounded, like somebody with the flu. "The rapids are too swift."
"Leave that to me," I said. We put the canoes in the water.
Thalia pulled me aside as we were getting the oars. "Thanks for back there."
"Don't mention it."
"Can you really…" She nodded to the rapids. "You know."
"I think so. Usually I'm good with water."
"Would you take Zoe?" she asked. "I think, ah, maybe you can talk to her."
"She's not going to like that."
"Please? I don't know if I can stand being in the same boat with her. She's… she's starting to worry me."
It was about the last thing I wanted to do, but I nodded.
Thalia's shoulders relaxed. "I owe you one."
"One and a half," Thalia said.